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Legislation aims to keep marijuana patients employed 

New legislation introduced to the state Senate would prohibit employers from firing individuals solely on the basis that they use medical marijuana.

On Jan. 3, Democratic Sen. Mark Leno—who represents Marin and portions of San Francisco and Sonoma counties in the Senate’s third district—introduced a bill that would prohibit discrimination of medical marijuana patients who use it legally outside of the workplace and outside of work hours. 

The legislation, tagged Senate Bill 129, seeks to reverse a California Supreme Court ruling that granted employers the right to either fire or refuse to hire workers who have a physician’s recommendation for medicinal marijuana.

The case, 2008’s Ross v. RagingWire Telecommunications, involved a 45-year-old disabled Air Force veteran, who was fired from his systems engineering job in 2001 after failing an employer-mandated drug test even though he informed his employer in advance he was using medical marijuana outside of the workplace under his doctor’s recommendation.

“I think anyone can grasp the fact that when voters approved Proposition 215 in 1996, their intent was certainly not to create an allowance for compassionate use only for unemployed people,” Leno told New Times.

According to Leno, the bill doesn’t require employers to accommodate smoking marijuana in the workplace or during working hours—which is illegal—under any circumstances. Nor would the bill require employers to hire or continue to employ medical marijuana patients who work in “safety-sensitive positions,” such as bus drivers, health-care providers, and operators of heavy machinery.

Leno said SB 129 shifts the focus from testing if an individual has used marijuana in the past to whether an individual is under the influence at work.

“With unemployment at record-high rates, we do not need more people unemployed who are doing a good job and are productive members of the workforce,” Leno said.

As a state Assembly member, Leno sponsored a similar bill in 2008, less than a week after the Ross ruling. Despite having the support of disability rights, medical, and labor groups—and passing both legislative houses—the bill was vetoed by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

According to statistics from the California Department of Public Health, in the 2009-10 fiscal year, 139 San Luis Obispo County residents applied for and received state-issued Medical Marijuana Program identification cards, which are renewed annually.

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