Marijuana is now legal in nine states constituting about one-fifth of the US population, and medical marijuana is recognized in a total of 29 states. That means people in those states can possess and use marijuana without fear of criminal prosecutions (if they have a doctor’s recommendation in the medical marijuana-only states).
people enjoying marijuana (Darrin Frisby Harris/Drug Policy Alliance)
But even in legal marijuana states, pot smokers face restrictions that in effect turn them into second-class citizens, unable to do things non-drug users or users of legally sanctioned drugs, such as alcohol, can do, or somehow punished for doing them. While legalizing marijuana is a giant breakthrough, as long as marijuana users face stigma, discrimination, and worse over their choice of substances, the job is only half-done.
Here are four ways even legal marijuana users get screwed:
1. Employment Rights
You may be able to smoke pot legally, but it can still cost you your job. Even in legal marijuana states, legalization laws generally are careful not to intrude on the rights of employers to conduct drug testing for pot and to fire people who test positive — even if they’re not high or impaired at work.
Legal cases in California, Colorado, Montana, and Washington have all upheld the right of employers to fire or refuse to hire workers who test positive for marijuana even if they have a medical marijuana recommendation. But the law is rapidly evolving, and a recent case from Connecticut, a nursing home that refused to hire a medical marijuana patient after he tested positive for THC was ordered to reinstate the job offer.
A thriving economy and growing social acceptance of marijuana may also bring some solace to pot smokers. As Bloomberg noted just last month, we are now seeing a “slow decline in pre-employment drug screening,” with some major employers abandoning the practice in the face of a tight job market. That trend, unsurprisingly, is being led by companies in the marijuana legal states. In Colorado, for instance, the percentage of employers using pre-employment drug tests declined from 77% in 2016 to 66% last year.
But still, if you smoked a joint on Friday night, Walmart still doesn’t think you’re fit to stock their shelves on Monday morning.
2. Gun Rights
If you smoke pot, you can’t legally purchase or own a gun. As more states move toward legalization, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms (ATF) has clarified its Form 4473, the federal Firearms Transaction Record that purchaser must fill out to buy a gun: “Are you an unlawful user of, or addicted to, marijuana or any depressant, stimulant, narcotic drug, or any other controlled substance?” the form asks.
And just so you stoners get it, ATF has added the following language: “Warning: The use or possession of marijuana remains unlawful under Federal law regardless of whether it has been legalized or decriminalized for medicinal or recreational purposes in the state where you reside.”
That means marijuana users who want to legally purchase a weapon have to lie on Form 4473. And that’s a federal crime. (Unlikely to be caught and prosecuted, but still.)
In August 2016, a federal appeals court upheld the ban on gun sales to medical marijuana patients. The 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled that the federal government’s ban on gun sales to medical marijuana cardholders does not violate the 2nd Amendment. The decision came in the case of a Nevada woman turned away from a gun shop after obtaining a medical marijuana card. The ruling sets precedent for all nine states in the circuit, including California, Oregon, and Washington.
There have been proactive efforts by law enforcement in a handful of states to, for example, order registered medical marijuana patients to turn in their guns, but those have so far been aborted in the face of loud opposition. In Pennsylvania, the state Health Department is no longer providing the names of patients to law enforcement after newspapers there reported the patients would not be able to buy firearms; in Illinois, regulators removed a rule that would have barred legal gun owners from becoming patients; and in Hawaii, police had to walk back a plan to force patients to hand in their guns.
Still, as long as the federal government maintains marijuana prohibition and as long as ATF considers marijuana a controlled substance, pot smokers’ gun rights are at risk. And the NRA doesn’t seem to care.
3. Parental Rights
In both medical marijuana states and full-blown legal pot states, parents have lost custody of their children over their marijuana use. Part of the problem is that marijuana remains federally illegal, turning the pot-using parent into a criminal in the eyes of courts of child protective services workers. Another part of the problem is discrimination and subjectivity about what constitutes “the best interest of the child.” If a child protective bureaucracy or even an individual case worker harbors anti-marijuana sentiments, even non-problematic recreational use of pot can be used to take children from the home or deny custody to the offending parent.
Marijuana use is especially likely to pop up in divorces where custody of the child or children is contested. If your spouse griped about your pot-smoking while you were married, be prepared for him or her to try to use it against you in a nasty divorce case. Divorce attorneys warn parents facing this prospect to quit smoking pot now, well ahead of any court dates and court-ordered drug tests.
That’s another way pot-smoking parents get hammered. Courts may demand onerous drug testing for months or year or require that visits with children be supervised.
Medical marijuana support groups report hundreds of cases of parents losing custody of their kids, some merely for having registered as medical marijuana patients. But there are small signs of positive change on the horizon: California’s Prop 64, for instance, includes a provision saying courts can no longer rescind or restrict a parent’s custodial rights solely because they have a medical marijuana recommendation.
That’s a start, but we still have a long way to go before pot-smoking parents can rest easy.
4. Housing Rights
You can be kicked out of your home for using marijuana if you are poor and live in HUD, Section 8, or other federally-subsidized housing. Under a 1999 HUD Memorandum Regarding Medical Marijuana in Public Housing still in effect, any activity relating to controlled substances, including even medical marijuana, can get you evicted.
And it doesn’t have to be just you. If you live in federally-subsidized housing and your grandson gets caught smoking a joint in the parking lot, you can find yourself tossed out on the street.
Even people who don’t live in federally-subsidized housing face problems, especially if they live in rental housing. Landlords can prohibit tenants from using marijuana, and rental apartment industry associations typically counsel their members that “banning the use or possession of marijuana on site does not violate any landlord/tenant or fair housing laws, even when marijuana has been legalized by local ordinance or state statute.” Nor, they argue, is allowing the use or cultivation of medical marijuana a “reasonable accommodation” required by law, even if it’s been medically recommended.
Marijuana is increasingly legal and accepted, but the progress is uneven, and the battle to be treated like normal citizens remains unfinished.