When Wal-Mart fired a card-carrying medical-marijuana patient for failing a drug test, it probably didn’t expect to end up in federal court.
By Charmie Gholson
In 2009, three days before Thanksgiving, Joseph Casias was fired from his job at the Wal-Mart in Battle Creek, MI, after testing positive for THC. Casias - who’d been named the company’s Associate of the Year in 2008 - was given a mandatory drug test after he sprained his knee while struggling to control an overloaded, top-heavy cart of merchandise.
Casias is a state-sanctioned medical-marijuana patient who suffers from a rare form of sinus cancer. As a result, he has a virtually inoperable tumor that was already the size of a softball back when he was first diagnosed at age 17. Despite having to live with severe chronic pain, Casias was successfully employed - and frequently praised - by Wal-Mart for a period of five straight years, starting off as an entry-level grocery stocker in 2004 and working his way up to inventory-control manager.
After his abrupt termination, Joseph sued Wal-Mart in state court, but the company’s lawyers were successful in having the case moved to federal court, where it was dismissed. Joseph’s lawyers, Daniel Grow and the ACLU, then took the case to the US Court of Appeals, arguing that the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act explicitly protects employees from being fired for using medical marijuana in accordance with the law. They’re currently waiting for oral arguments in the case to be scheduled. And while his tumor is ever-present, Casias’s cancer has been in remission for nine years, though the married father of two still endures extreme pain daily and struggles with feeding his family.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Cleveland, OH. I have two younger brothers and an older sister. We lived in the city. I love Cleveland and the people there - it’s a great city.
Where did your parents work?
When I was younger, my mom managed a Dunkin’ Donuts. My father actually wasn’t my father, but he was the only father I ever knew; he raised me from when I was one year old. He was a truck driver and a construction worker. He passed away in April of this year.
When did you move to Michigan?
Around 1994. My mom didn’t know who her real father was and went looking for him. She ended up in Battle Creek and got sick. That’s why I came here to begin with.
I liked it because it wasn’t so fast-paced, wasn’t so many people, wasn’t a lot of crime in Battle Creek at that time. It was a very quiet place; everybody was really friendly. I love Michigan.
How did you find out you were sick?
It started when I was 17. I was living in Battle Creek, and I had started getting weak. I don’t remember everything because I had blackouts. I only remember certain things: My nose was bleeding all the time, nonstop, no matter what I did. Then I got to the point where I was coughing up blood. I had lost so much weight, I was skin and bones. I could barely even walk.
I went to the ER in Battle Creek. I would go there all the time, but they would send me home and tell me nothing was wrong with me. The lady at the front desk knew my name in full. I did that for a year, once or twice a week, and one day I finally went in there, and there was an ER doctor from Kalamazoo who said, “You know why you’re coming in here like this?” She told me I had cancer, a form of cancer that was not common - it was really rare. They weren’t sure of what it was, but they knew it was cancer.
She sent me home. I went home to my mom and gave her the paperwork [for admission to the hospital]. I was on death’s door by this time, and my mom picked me up and carried me to the ER room, and they started doing tests.
I remember they did a biopsy. They couldn’t give me anything for pain when they stuck it up my nostril—I was too far into the final stage of cancer, and they didn’t want to give me anything because it could take my life.
They figured out it was a form of sinus cancer that originated in China, but they can’t figure out how I got it. It’s not genetic cancer; the name is “nasopharyngeal cancer.” The tumor is in the back of my head. They gave me chemo and lots of radiation right away. That stuff makes you so sick - I got so sick I wanted to die. I really thought, “This ain’t worth it.”
How did you become a medical-marijuana patient?
My oncologist has been my doctor since I was 17. We talked about it. I said, “This stuff is not helping - I need something that’s going to help me.” I was taking Lortab 10/500 [10 mg. of hydrocodone and 500 mg. of acetaminophen] for pain. I had no appetite; it made me sick to my stomach. I tried to take the anti-nausea medicine, but it just didn’t work so I stopped taking them.
We talked about it, and he felt that marijuana would help me therapeutically and help me alleviate my pain. He thought it would be worth trying to see if it works - this was right after the law was passed. I didn’t even vote for this law because I didn’t know about it, but I want to thank all the Michigan voters who passed this law. It’s helped me so much.
How does marijuana help your condition?
It alleviates the pain. Using a pain scale, rating it from 1 to 10, my pain, on average, is at a 2 or 3 with marijuana. Usually my sinus is clogged, but when I smoke, five to 10 minutes later all that’s clogged in there will just drop into the back of my throat, and I spit it up and can breathe through my nose again. It’s an amazing thing, really. It’s mind-boggling to me - when you’ve tried so many different medications and none of them do this for you, but you can smoke this and it will cure it?
God put this plant here - and I don’t care, no one is going to tell me any different. God put it here as a natural medicine and a natural resource, and people don’t want to let it be because they have greedy ways.
You said you’re in remission, but you still have the tumor?
Yes, the tumor sits on top of my spinal cord. They told me the percentages are high for me to become paralyzed or die because the tumor has ate through the bone marrow of my spine and also the base of my skull. The tumor is actually holding my head on. It’s right where my neck goes into my skull.
Eventually, one day, my head will probably fall off.
Isn’t there anything they can do about that?
My doctor wanted to give me surgery. He still says I need it, but the tumor is not growing, it’s at a standstill. It’s just there, but I still have lots of pain.
They gave me a 70 to 80 percent chance of being paralyzed or dying during that surgery. I think if my choice is between being paralyzed or dying … well, I have little kids. I’m not trying to leave them yet.
After I met with the doctors, I felt that I will have a better chance if I don’t have the surgery - besides the fact I don’t have money to cover surgery like that. It’s very expensive.
What is their concern?
That the tumor will move and my head will fall off my body. Kinda like a car with bad tires - when they pop, that’s all there is. [Laughs] When I started working at Wal-Mart, I already had the cancer and was using different pain medicine. My pain is constantly in my neck and my back - it’s really terrible, to work like I did and do what I had to do. Grocery work is laborious work.
When did you start working at Wal-Mart?
In 2004, I hired in as an overnight grocery stocker. At first, I was just trying to support my family. My mom lived with us at the time, I had my brothers living with me - I was trying to take care of everybody. I was just trying to make a better life for everyone. I wasn’t asking to be a million-dollar man - I just wanted a piece of that American dream, you know? No matter where you came from, no matter who you are, you can have a piece of that dream.
I loved working at Wal-Mart. I felt like I had a purpose. I just wanted to be the best I could possibly be at all costs. I wanted them to look at me and say, “Hey, here’s a good worker right there.” That’s all I wanted.
I’d say you succeeded. Weren’t you the 2008 Associate of the year?
Yes. In April of 2008, I became Associate of the Month, then I switched jobs during the year, got promoted and became Associate of the Year.
Wal-Mart fired you for testing positive for marijuana. Why did they drug-test you?
On that night, I didn’t have enough help to get the job done. I was unloading the truck. We overstocked carts and pallets more than we should have. I asked one of the managers, “Where should we put this stuff?” He said, “Do whatever you’ve got to do to get it to the floor.”
The manager was saying, “Come on!” But I was pushing the cart, and it was awkward. I pushed the cart and my knee just went the wrong way - it snapped, and I knew instantly it was real bad. I immediately sat down on a bench for a few minutes, and when I got back up, I couldn’t put pressure on my knee.
They let me go home - my shift was up anyway. They said, “Go home tonight and come back tomorrow and see how it is.” I went home and came back the next day. They offered to take me to the ER but wanted me to unload the truck first, so they’d at least have the truck unloaded. Then they took me to the ER.
After they said, “You’re going to have to take a drug test,” I let them know I’m a medical-marijuana patient. I handed them my card. They put me on crutches. I had sprained my knee pretty bad.
Then I had to see the Wal-Mart doctor, and I handed them my medical-marijuana card and again had no issues whatsoever. They put me on restrictions - I was still doing the same thing, but I couldn’t bend, squat or kneel. But I was doing the same thing I had been doing.
I think I worked for almost a week. Then I got a call from the place that does the lab work for the Wal-Mart doctor, and he told me everything came out fine, except he wanted to know if I took Marinol [a pharmaceutical drug made from synthetic THC]. I said, “I’m a medical-marijuana patient, and I have a state-issued license to use medical marijuana for my illness.”
He said, “Is it Marinol?” I said no. He said, “Is it in pill form?” I said, “No, but I have a state-issued license.” He said, “I don’t know what to tell you - you’re going to have to talk to your store manager.”
I immediately went into the manager’s office. The store manager had gone home for the day, but I told the co-manager about the conversation with the gentleman from the lab and showed him my card. He said, “Oh yeah, that’s why they passed that law. Why don’t you take a break and I’ll call the store manager and talk to him about this.”
I went for a break and came back, and he said, “You don’t have nothing to worry about. Everything’s fine; there’s no issue. You have the state-issued card - the only thing we need is a copy of your card.”
They took a copy of my card, and I worked the next day. And when I came back Monday, I was not there five minutes when the store manager came from the receiving area and said, “Hey, Joe, I need to talk to you in my office.” I said okay. They had the loss-prevention [security] guy there and another manager and the store manager, and we all sat down. The manager said, “Joe, I understand you have a medical-marijuana card, but I’m sorry to inform you that I have to terminate you.”
I said, “Why?” He said, “For failing the drug policy.” I said, “I don’t understand. How can you fire me if I have a health issue?” And he said, “I have to fire you. I wish I could just write you up, but I have to terminate you.”
He asked if I had any questions for him, and I said, “You’re making it clear that you’re going to terminate me.” The impression I got was, it would have been okay for me to take it in pill form - but the reason I didn’t was because my doctor said, “You’re better off growing it yourself. The Marinol will cost you $300 a month for a prescription.”
But you had cancer when you were hired at Wal-Mart. Weren’t you taking narcotics for the pain back then?
Yes. When I worked for Wal-Mart, I was struggling with cancer and taking different medications. I was taking Lortab.
And Wal-Mart didn’t have an issue with you taking a heavy narcotic while working for them?
You have to take a drug test when you hire in, and when I did, I was on Lortab. I showed them my prescription, and they had no issue with it. They knew I was getting it from the pharmacy out front - they knew. If they tell you otherwise, they’re a bunch of fibbers. They all knew I was fighting cancer.
So the Wal-Mart lab guy wanted to know if you were taking Marinol because that would have been acceptable under their drug policy?
That was the impression I got.
What did you do after you were fired?
I went home. I knew what it meant - I couldn’t look at my wife because I knew what it meant to my family, me being terminated. I knew we would be facing some hard times.
I cried a lot over it because I really cared about my job. The managers would say, “I don’t know what we’d do without you, Joe …. You’re the best employee we have …. You’re our savior, Joe.” It wasn’t one or two managers - it was every manager. They knew if they came to me and wanted something done, I would do my best to do it.
When this happened, it was like, “Well, you’re fired, Joe.” How can you praise someone so much and then just disregard them? I never used marijuana at work. How can they punish someone for that?
How did you come to sue them?
I was upset, and I went into a severe depression and didn’t talk to anyone for three months - not my wife or my kids. Then I had a dream: I was in a room, and there were all these people with suits and ties on in the dream, and, well, it was telling me I have to make it known that I was fired. In the dream, I was emailing everyone telling them I had been fired - and why I was fired.
It seems you rely heavily on your faith.
People have different beliefs. I believe in the Bible - I [believe] the Bible is more of a literal thing. When you talk about “Love your neighbor,” I think that’s more to the point. I believe that God sent Jesus here as God to be with us - and because of our sin, He suffered through that. He sent His only begotten son here so we could have salvation and eternal life.
Regarding this battle with Wal-Mart, what do you believe is God’s plan for you?
I feel God’s plan for me is to spread as much love as I can and show people how to open up instead of having so much hate. We do have enough love for everybody. The Bible tells you to love your enemies. You shouldn’t judge people - that’s for the Lord to do. Even if they don’t believe in what you believe in, you should still love them.
Do you love Wal-Mart?
[Long pause] Yes. I just want them to do the right thing. I do love them. Did they make me upset? Of course - but it’s just not in me to hate anyone or anything. That’s the person I am.
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The HIGH TIMES Interview: Joseph Casias
When Wal-Mart fired a card-carrying medical-marijuana patient for failing a drug test, it probably didn’t expect to end up in federal court.