Medical marijuana

The claim of a former nurse at a Cottonwood hospice could become the first case to test the limits on employers under the state's year-old medical marijuana law.

Attorneys for Esther Shapiro contend she was fired from Verde Valley Community Hospice because she is a medical marijuana user. They want Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Michael McVey to award her damages.

Repeated calls to the facility seeking comment were not returned.

Arizona is one of several states where voters have approved laws allowing those with a doctor's recommendation to obtain and use marijuana for medical purposes.

But the Arizona law contains something not in statutes elsewhere: an anti-discrimination provision. It says that an employer may not make decisions on hiring, firing or discipline based on the person's status as a registered marijuana user. The law even says that a positive drug test for marijuana from someone who is a registered user cannot be used against that employee unless the person either used, possessed or was impaired at the worksite.

Initiative backers say that was on purpose.

In one high-profile case, a Michigan man had a medical marijuana card under that state's laws to deal with the pain from sinus cancer and a brain tumor.

He was required to take a drug test after he sprained his ankle, as is company policy involving on-the-job injuries. Once the test came back positive for marijuana, he was fired.

That state does not have the same anti-discrimination provisions that are in the Arizona law.

The lawsuit claims that Shapiro was hired in July as a part-time nurse at its facility. A month later it became a full-time position.

During the orientation, Shapiro said she was informed by her supervisor that she would be required to submit to a pre-employment drug test. Shapiro, in turn, says she informed the supervisor as a registered medical marijuana card holder but did submit to the test.

The following day, according to Shapiro, the supervisor told her that the hospice's insurance carrier considered her to be too much of a liability because of her status as a medical marijuana card holder, firing her that day.

Her attorneys said they tried in September to explain that the firing violated the state's medical marijuana law. That, they said, went nowhere.

But 10 days later - and a full month after her firing, William Hayes, one of the facility's owners, submitted a complaint to the Arizona State Board of Nursing that an unspecified staffer had smelled marijuana on Shapiro, and that was the reason for the drug test. Her lawyers deny she was ever under the influence of the drug while on hospice premises or during working hours.

David Weissman, one of Shapiro's attorneys, acknowledged in the lawsuit that the medical marijuana law does allow a company to fire a medical marijuana user if "failure to do so would cause an employer to lose monetary or licensing related benefit under federal law or regulations." But Weissman said the hospice had no such evidence when they fired Shapiro.

Separately, Shapiro is suing Hayes for defamation for "intentionally and knowingly making false statements" about her to the nursing board and possibly to others.

The hospice has not yet filed a formal response to the lawsuit in court.



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