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What Do Zero-Tolerance Laws Mean For Medical Cardholders?

sign showing zero tolerance of cannabis with judge's gavel as background

Access to medical cannabis has broadened thanks to growing legalization and positive sentiment, yet the laws surrounding medical marijuana can be confusing and often contradictory.

Today, many states have legalized medical cannabis and even recreational use, but federal law still classifies cannabis as a Schedule 1 substance. Even in some legal states, some rules haven’t caught up with their current legislation on medical marijuana.

The laws can be confusing, but there are some strict rules governing cannabis use that apply in most states, such as driving or operating machinery under the influence. This article breaks down the situations where most states employ zero-tolerance laws and addresses frequently asked questions about what you absolutely can or cannot do with medical cannabis.

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What Are Zero Tolerance Laws?

Despite confusing contradictions and specificities across state lines, there are some commonalities in cannabis and zero-tolerance laws.

Medical Marijuana and Driving

As with driving laws, the regulations governing cannabis use and possession vary from state to state. 

Some states permit medical cannabis users to carry specified small amounts of cannabis purchased from a licensed dispensary or, in some states, grown at home. This amount is state-specific, but those with regulations typically allow you to carry cannabis in a sealed container.

However, driving under the influence of any substance is illegal in practically every state, whether you’re using marijuana as a medicine or not. Suppose an enforcement officer stops you for erratic driving. In that case, the presence of cannabis in your car may serve as evidence of your operating a vehicle under the influence and result in a DUI. 

Medical Marijuana and Jobs

While a drug panel tests for many things, THC and its metabolites are the most commonly found in workplace drug testing. And although cannabis is legal in more than half the United States, the laws protecting medical cannabis patients from employment discrimination are far from comprehensive.

Some states have implemented laws protecting workers from discrimination against their status as medical marijuana patients. However, since cannabis is still federally illegal, many larger employers still implement a zero-tolerance policy. 

Because of this, federal government contractors, workers, and military personnel are still completely prohibited from medical cannabis use, regardless of their state-sanctioned status as licensed patients. According to the region’s specific laws, state government workers in certain states may be permitted to use medical cannabis.

Driving and medical cannabis

Zero tolerance laws make driving illegal if there is any measurable amount of specified drugs in the driver’s body. These laws apply mainly to illicit drugs, as it’s a good stretch that if a drug is illegal, so too is its use while operating a motor vehicle. If a stopped motorist fails a field drug test, they violate the legal code and are responsible for whatever penalties may come.

However, with broader state-by-state legalization, medical cannabis users will often still have THC and its metabolites in their system even when the intoxication period has long since passed. 

Some states have subsequently specified rules governing driving and cannabis use: these are called per se regulations and only penalize cannabis in a driver’s body when it surpasses certain limits.

These states have a complete zero-tolerance law for driving with THC or any metabolite:

  • Arizona
  • Delaware
  • Georgia
  • Indiana
  • Oklahoma
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • South Dakota
  • Utah

These states have a zero-tolerance law for THC but no restriction on its metabolites:

  • Iowa
  • Michigan
  • Wisconsin

These states have specific per se limits for THC:

  • Illinois
  • Montana
  • Nevada
  • Ohio
  • Washington

Colorado has a permissible inference law, meaning that it is inferred whether a driver was under the influence depending on the amount of THC in their blood.

Medical cannabis and employment

The growing public sentiment towards cannabis continues to drive legalization nationwide, with positivity rates at a 16 year high in support of its regulation. However, before this surge in support, cannabis was the most common drug found on drug tests

While employers naturally have a stake in ensuring their employees arrive to work with a clear mind and perform, cannabis use off the clock would result in a failed drug test. This puts many employers and employees in a complicated situation, with some (but not all) willing to address and adapt their policies to accommodate medical cannabis patients among their workforce.

Can You Be Fired For a Positive Drug Test If You Have a Medical Card?

Even as more employers revisit their workplace drug policies, the fact that cannabis is federally illegal stays in the hands of many larger corporations. It’s more common to see companies loosen the rules for medical cannabis patients, but even then, nothing is guaranteed.

The argument in favor of zero tolerance drug-free office policies allows employers to meet their legal obligation to provide a safe place to work. But a stricter drug policy may lower the company’s appeal to a prospective employee, whereas looser rules may be considered a perk.

Before considering employment with a company, medical cannabis patients should be upfront and ask about a prospective employer’s drug use policy. Medical marijuana users should also keep their rights in mind when entering these conversations. 

Is It a Discrimination Issue?

Of 33 legalized states, only 11 have explicitly written legislation to protect medical cannabis patients from employment discrimination. Employers can typically require drug testing before hiring and randomly throughout an employee’s tenure, as long as there is no specific discrimination against a worker who is legally allowed to use cannabis for medical purposes.

The following states have anti-discrimination protections in place to protect cannabis users from drug-free workplace policies:

  • Arizona
  • Arkansas
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Illinois
  • Maine
  • Massachusetts
  • Minnesota
  • Nevada
  • New Jersey
  • New Mexico
  • New York
  • Oklahoma
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • West Virginia

The Bottom Line on Zero Tolerance Laws and Cannabis

Even as regulations adapt to changing sentiment and widespread access to medical cannabis, laws should integrate its use into driving, and the workplace remains a complex issue. 

Medical cannabis users should bear this complexity in mind when choosing to operate a vehicle and retain a clear understanding of each state’s law and its rights. Medical cannabis patients should also clearly communicate with their employer to understand their policies and whether they are zero tolerance or accommodating.

Curious about how the responsible use of medical marijuana may benefit your wellness? Connect with a Leafwell physician to learn more

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