No protection for medical marijuana use under the ADA

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently affirmed the denial of a preliminary injunction sought by medical marijuana users who claimed that two California cities that were raiding their medical marijuana dispensaries were violating the users rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

In James v. City of Costa Mesa, plaintiffs brought suit under the ADA claiming that each plaintiff is “a qualified person with a disability as defined in the ADA.”  Under Title II of the ADA, public entities “must not intentionally or on a disparate impact basis discriminate against the disabled individual’s meaningful access to public services.”  Plaintiffs alleged that city raids and closures of medical marijuana dispensaries interfered with their access to the medical marijuana they use to manage their illnesses, thus, the defendant cities have effectively prevented them from accessing public services in violation of Title II.

The Court affirmed the lower court’s ruling, denying plaintiff’s plea for injunctive relief because, in the Court’s opinion, the ADA does not protect against discrimination on the basis of medical marijuana use permitted under state law; the use must be authorized by federal law.  The Court’s opinion recognized that plaintiffs are “gravely ill” and sympathized with “their right to live comfortably,” but stated that Congress has made it clear that the ADA defines “illegal drug use” by reference to federal, not state law, and that federal law does not authorize the use of marijuana for medical purposes.  The Court said, “We therefore necessarily conclude that the plaintiffs’ medical marijuana use is not protected by the ADA.”

Plaintiffs argued that “illegal use of drugs” – in this case marijuana – was excepted under the ADA.  Section 12210(d)(1) of the ADA defines “illegal use of drugs” as:

 the use of drugs, the possession or distribution of which is unlawful under the Controlled Substances Act. Such term does not include the use of a drug taken under supervision by a licensed health care professional, or other uses authorized by the Controlled Substances Act or other provisions of Federal law.

 Plaintiffs argued medical use of marijuana falls within one of the exceptions because their use of the illegal drug is supervised by a licensed health care professional.  The cities disagreed with this interpretation and argued that Section 12210 contains a single exception that covers all uses authorized by the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) or other provisions of law.  The Court held that the cities’ interpretation of Section 12210 was correct, and commented that the plaintiff’s interpretation was a substantial departure from the federal policy that does not extend federal protections to federally prohibited, but state-authorized, medical use of marijuana.  The Court found that the cities’ interpretation “not only makes the best sense of the statute’s text and the historical context of its passage, but also is the only interpretation that fully harmonizes the ADA and the CSA.”  Accordingly, doctor-supervised marijuana use is an illegal use of drugs not covered by the ADA’s supervised use exception.

This case demonstrates that although state views on medical marijuana are often contrary to the federal government’s views, and although federal views may be evolving, it is clear that at this point in time federal laws do not recognize marijuana for medicinal purposes and until they do, marijuana used for any purpose under the CSA is an “illegal drug use.”