Medical marijuana user sues over Wal-Mart firing

Joseph Casias, who has a brain tumor, is registered to use pot in Michigan

Published June 29, 2010 10:45PM (EDT)

A man who uses medical marijuana to treat symptoms of an inoperable brain tumor and cancer claims in a lawsuit filed Tuesday he was wrongfully fired from a Walmart store in Michigan after testing positive for the drug.

Joseph Casias was fired last year after five years on the job in Battle Creek despite being legally registered with the state to use the drug, according to the lawsuit against the world's largest retailer in state court.

Casias, 30, said he didn't use marijuana at work or come to work under the influence. Scott Michelman, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said the lawsuit aims to test the extent that Michigan's law protects employees.

"No patient should be forced to choose between adequate pain relief and gainful employment, and no employer should be allowed to intrude upon private medical choices made by employees in consultation with their doctors," Michelman said.

Michigan voters approved medical marijuana use in 2008. Federal law still prohibits the sale and cultivation of the drug.

Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc. said in a statement that it is an "unfortunate situation all around." It said it is sympathetic to Casias' condition but said it is an issue of customer and employee safety.

"The doctor prescribed treatment was not the relevant issue. The issue is about the ability of our associates to do their jobs safely," the company said. "As more states allow this treatment, employers are left without any guidelines except the federal standard."

Casias' drug test was given after he injured his knee at work in November, but the positive result on the urine test only indicated drug use in recent days or weeks, according to the lawsuit in Calhoun County Circuit Court. Casias said the injury had nothing to do with marijuana use; he simply stepped the wrong way.

Fourteen states provide protections for patients who use marijuana as recommended by a doctor. While still illegal under federal law, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced last year the Obama administration would relax prosecution guidelines. Some state courts, however, haven't upheld employee protections.

In April, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that an employer is not required to accommodate the use of medical marijuana, saying state law is trumped by federal law. And in recent years, state supreme courts in Montana and California have ruled that medical marijuana laws don't protect employees from being fired for using the drug.

The ACLU argues, however, said Michigan's law more explicitly protects employees from being disciplined for legally using medical marijuana. It said that includes Casias' case, but not those who use the drug at work, for example.

Casias' cancer has been in remission for nine years, but the married father of two's medical condition interferes with his ability to speak and causes pain. He said the use of medical marijuana, which was recommended by his oncologist after the law took effect, has decreased his pain without nausea that accompanied a previous medication.

"For some people, working at Wal-Mart is just a job, but for me, it was a way of life," Casias, of Battle Creek, said in a statement. "I came to Wal-Mart for a better opportunity for my family and I worked hard and proved myself. I just want the opportunity to continue my work."

The ACLU and its Michigan branch represent Casias along with attorney Daniel W. Grow in the lawsuit against Wal-Mart and a store manager.

By David Runk

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