Governor of Virginia Signs Bill Protecting Employees Who Use Medical Cannabis

Although the bill has caveats, it’s a significant step in the state’s journey in marijuana reform.
Governor of Virginia Signs Bill Protecting Employees Who Use Medical Cannabis

Weeks after lawmakers in the Commonwealth passed a bill clearing the way for recreational marijuana legalization, Virginia. Gov. Ralph Northam took steps to enshrine employment protections for medical cannabis patients. 

Northam late last week signed a bill into law that “prohibits an employer from discharging, disciplining, or discriminating against an employee for such employee’s lawful use of cannabis oil pursuant to a valid written certification issued by a practitioner for the treatment or to eliminate the symptoms of the employee’s diagnosed condition or disease.”

It will take effect on July 1.

The bill provides plenty of caveats. For starters, the prohibition does not “restrict an employer’s ability to take any adverse employment action for any work impairment caused by the use of cannabis oil or to prohibit possession during work hours.” Nor does the new law “require an employer to commit any act that would cause the employer to be in violation of federal law or that would result in the loss of a federal contract or federal funding” or “require any defense industrial base sector employer or prospective employer to hire or retain any applicant or employee who tests positive for tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in excess of certain amounts.”

Those latter exceptions are particularly important in a state like Virginia, which is home to a large number of federal employees and federal contractors. 

Continuing Progress in Virginia

The measure’s passage and signing were celebrated by marijuana advocates. “With Virginia’s first medical dispensaries now operational, this is an important initial step for lawmakers to take in defense of patients’ rights,” said Jenn Michelle Pedini, Executive Director for Virginia NORML. “But with the Commonwealth on the verge of becoming the first state in the South to legalize cannabis for adult-use, the legislature should work swiftly to eliminate suspicionless marijuana testing altogether in order to better align with both state law and with public opinion.”

The legislation marks a continuation of what has been a busy month on the cannabis front for Northam and other Virginia Democrats. The governor is poised to sign a bill that will legalize recreational marijuana in Virginia, making it the first state in the south to embrace legalization.

For Northam, marijuana reform has emerged as one of his top policy priorities. In his State of the State address in January, he made it clear he wanted a legalization bill on his desk.

“It’s time to legalize marijuana in Virginia,” Northam said at the time. “Our Commonwealth has an opportunity to be the first state in the South to take this step, and we will lead with a focus on equity, public health, and public safety. I look forward to working with the General Assembly to get this right.”

And a year ago, Northam signed a bill that decriminalized weed. “Every Virginian deserves access to a fair and equitable criminal justice system,” said Northam in a statement after signing the bill. “These bills combat mass incarceration, increase support for returning citizens, and ensure that those who have paid their debt to society have a meaningful second chance. I thank the General Assembly for working with us to build a more just and inclusive Commonwealth.”

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