SALEM — Oregon employers are telling lawmakers that medical marijuana puts them in a tough spot between conflicting state and federal laws.
The Daily Journal of Commerce reported that a lobbyist for one of the largest trade groups in the state told the Oregon House Business and Labor Committee this week the conflict makes it nearly impossible for employers to comply.
"We believe employers are caught in the crosshairs of state and federal laws," said Gary Conklin of Associated General Contractors of Oregon.
When Oregon voters in 1998 decided to legalize marijuana for medical purposes, it was in defiance of federal drug laws.
Marijuana remains illegal under the U.S. Controlled Substances Act, which was upheld in 2005 by the U.S. Supreme Court.
As a result, Oregon walks a legal tightrope. State authorities don't prosecute people for medical marijuana use, but they stay out of the way if federal authorities decide to bust patients or caregivers under federal drug laws.
But Conklin says employers can't perform that kind of balancing act.
The federal Drug Free Workplace Act of 1988 requires many federal contractors and all recipients of federal grants to agree they will abide by federal law.
But it's next to impossible to comply with federal regulations while honoring Oregon's medical marijuana law, Conklin said.
The issue may be partly resolved with the announcement this past week by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder that federal agents will target marijuana distributors only when they violate both federal and state laws.
State Rep. Bruce Hanna, R-Roseburg, says employers still need protection. He has sponsored the legislation that enables them to fire or punish workers who use medical marijuana to the extent that it threatens safety or productivity.
His bill also states that employers don't have to do anything to accommodate medical marijuana users. "Medical marijuana is the leading threat to workplace safety in Oregon," Hanna said.
But workplace accidents in Oregon have decreased since the medical marijuana law passed in 1998, said marijuana activist Larry Funk
He also notes there are no records linking accidents to marijuana, which stays in the body for such a long period that there is no way to establish a cause-and-effect relationship.
Medical marijuana is the subject of five bills this session, including Hanna's proposal.
Two of the bills, including Hanna's, say employers don't have to accommodate workers for medical marijuana.
Another bill puts Oregon in the business of growing and distributing marijuana while two other bills are designed to protect patients.
One prohibits employers from discriminating against medical marijuana patients, and the other sets up a review process if drug testing discovers marijuana in a worker's system.
Madeline Martinez, the executive director of NORML of Oregon, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, says it is likely some people abuse the medical marijuana law. But she says that is true of most laws.
"People rob banks every day," Martinez said. "We don't close down the banks."
Jessica Barber of Portland, a medical marijuana patient, said there also is the potential for employers to abuse the law.
"I see these bills as a perfect way for employers to get rid of sick employees," Barber said.