By Yvette Farnsworth Baker, Esq.
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Medical marijuana resides in a grey area of the law, not completely legal and not completely illegal (in some states). While federal and state laws protect individuals with disabilities, do those protections extend to medical marijuana treatment?

Rhode Island Medical Marijuana Ruling

A recent court decision out of Rhode Island called Callaghan v. Darlington Fabrics came to a surprising conclusion regarding marijuana use and disability. A Rhode Island judge held that refusing to hire an applicant due to medical marijuana use did violate the state disability protection law. The Rhode Island medical marijuana law authorizes a marijuana card for those with a debilitating medical condition. Examples include cancer, HIV/AIDS, glaucoma, and Hepatitis C. The court found that qualifying for a medical marijuana card under Rhode Island law necessitates a legal disability, and refusing to hire a person with a disability based on their medical treatment is illegal.

Disability Law and Illegal Drugs

What was most surprising was the court’s decision regarding a section of the disability law that references illegal drugs. The Rhode Island disability protection law is similar to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in its provision that excludes illegal drug use from protection. The Rhode Island law states: “A qualified individual with a disability shall not include any employee or applicant who is currently engaging in the illegal use of drugs, when the covered entity acts on the basis of such use.” This wording mirrors that of the ADA.

Generally, this has been interpreted to exclude medical marijuana users from ADA protection. While the individual’s underlying condition may be a disability, an entity which acts on the basis of marijuana use will not violate ADA protection. Even if medical marijuana use is legal under the laws of certain states, it remains illegal under federal law. The term “illegal” is not restricted in the statute to what is illegal under state law, and thus must encompass drug use which is illegal under federal law as well. Thus any marijuana use, even for medical purposes, still falls under the umbrella of “illegal use of drugs.”

However, the court in Callaghan v. Darlington Fabrics concluded differently. The Rhode Island disability protection statute discusses illegal drug use after referencing a “qualified individual.” The ADA similarly precedes its bar on illegal drug use with the term “qualified individual.” However, the Rhode Island court finds that the disability protection does not mention “qualified individuals” in protecting those with disabilities. None of the definitions of disability in the statute incorporates the term “qualified individual.” Therefore the section barring illegal drug use does not apply to this particular case.


This was the decision of a lower court and may not yet be final. Darlington Fabrics plans to appeal to the state supreme court. Additionally, the holding only applies to Rhode Island and was decided based on state law and not on the ADA. It was a surprising conclusion and there is a good chance it will not hold up to scrutiny by higher courts. Medical marijuana and workplace drug testing laws continue to evolve and develop, and it is vital to be abreast of the newest developments.

If you require assistance with policy, training, or consulting services, contact The Current Consulting Group, LLC (CCG) at 215-240-8204. Our knowledgeable and professional staff welcome the opportunity to work with you.

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