California Joins Growing List of States to Protect Employees’ Off-Duty Use of Marijuana

By Jennifer Kearns and Danielle Dwyer

Starting January 1, 2024, employers in California will be prohibited from interfering with their employees’ off-duty use of marijuana.  On September 18, 2022, Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law Assembly Bill 2188 (AB 2188), which amends California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) to add protections for employees by prohibiting employers from refusing to hire, firing, or otherwise taking an adverse action against an employee based on the employee’s “use of cannabis off the job and away from the workplace.”  Although medicinal marijuana has been legal in California since 1996, and recreational marijuana legal since 2016, the FEHA did not previously provide workplace protections for employees’ permissive use of marijuana.

AB 2188 also amends the FEHA to prohibit discrimination in hiring or any term or condition of employment based on employer-required drug screening tests that detect “nonpsychoactive cannabis metabolites” in the employee’s “hair, blood, urine, or other bodily fluids.”  The California legislature stated that because most marijuana tests can only detect whether cannabis metabolites are present, and have “no correlation to impairment on the job,” employers will need to instead rely on alternative tests to determine whether an employee is under the influence at work.  These alternative tests can include “impairment tests” that “measure an individual employee against their own baseline performance,” or tests that “identify the presence of THC in an individual’s bodily fluids.”

Although the law does not specify what constitutes an “impairment test,” it is possible the legislature was referencing tests that measure an individual’s motor functions, the visual effects of being high, and/or obvious cognitive impairments such as impaired gait or mobility, glassy eyes, changes in speech, and/or reasoning ability.  However, at this time, there is no universal definition, legally or medically, of what constitutes “impairment.”  Employers wishing to utilize impairment tests should develop a protocol that identifies the signs of impairment that will be assessed and that includes training supervisors on recognizing and documenting signs of impairment.

It is also not immediately clear upon which bodily fluid tests employers can rely given that THC can remain detectable in a person’s system weeks after use and such tests might not be able to provide objective data as to whether an employee is impaired at a specific time.  The intent of AB 2188 is to protect an employee’s off-duty use, so if an employee partakes on a Saturday and fails a drug test on a Wednesday, but is not impaired on Wednesday, taking action against that employee would be discriminatory and unlawful.  Employers that rely on physical drugs should consider incorporating impairment tests into their drug testing procedures.  A two-fold approach may better protect an employer from liability under AB 2188.  Employers should also confirm with their drug testing providers that the provider tests for the presence of THC and not nonpsychoactive cannabis metabolites.

Importantly, AB 2188 does allow employers to prohibit marijuana use on the job and/or at the worksite and specifically states that there is a “consensus” that employees “should not arrive at a worksite high or impaired.”  Employers would also still be permitted to maintain drug-free workplaces and prohibit the possession of marijuana at the workplace.  The bill exempts employees “in the building and construction trades,” and positions which require federal drug tests and/or background tests.

With the amendments to the FEHA, California joins a growing list of states that have enacted employee protections for the recreational use of marijuana including Connecticut, Illinois, Montana, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island.

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The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the author and are not to be construed as legal advice.

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