DETROIT — The Michigan appeals court has agreed to hear two cases to determine whether someone fired for using medical marijuana still can collect unemployment benefits from the state.
Judges in Ingham and Kent counties have reversed decisions of a state agency and ruled in favor of two people who sought benefits after being dismissed. But the attorney general's office argues that the 2008 medical marijuana law protects people from criminal prosecutions, not from adverse rulings in civil disputes such as jobless pay.
State law "recognizes that an employer has a valid interest in maintaining a drug-free workplace," the state said in a court filing. "Thus workers who are discharged for a positive drug test are disqualified from receiving benefits."
The appeals court has agreed to hear appeals from the state in the case of a forklift driver in Grand Rapids and a hospital employee in Charlotte, southwest of Lansing. The issue isn't whether an employer can fire a worker for medical marijuana use. Federal courts, in a case involving a Wal-Mart employee, already have said that Michigan businesses have that authority.
Rather, these cases deal with unemployment pay, a critical safety net for someone between jobs.
Jenine Kemp, a CT scan technician, was fired at Hayes Green Beach Memorial Hospital after a drug test in 2011 revealed marijuana. She said she uses marijuana in food outside work hours to relieve chronic pain from lupus, which attacks joints, and other ailments. Kemp has a state-issued card.
"She never showed any signs of intoxication or being under the influence. There was no indication she was using marijuana on the job," her attorney, Eric Misterovich, said in an interview. "The only complaints came when she talked about medical marijuana. That's what prompted the drug test."
Ingham County Judge William Collette ruled in favor of Kemp earlier this year, saying she used marijuana in a legal way and can't be disqualified from getting unemployment benefits.
Rick Braska worked for Challenge Manufacturing Co. His use of marijuana was detected during a routine test while he was being checked for an ankle injury in 2010. He was registered to use marijuana for back problems, but his bosses said the drug violated company policy and he was fired.
"He was a good employee. There was no ill will at all," attorney Scott Stuart said.
Michigan's unemployment agency granted jobless pay, but the Michigan Compensation Appellate Commission reversed. In 2012, Kent County Judge Mark Trusock overturned that decision on technical grounds.
No date has been set for arguments in the state appeals court. The attorney general's office said much is at stake, especially for employers.
Unemployment pay, the state said, is not an entitlement "for all persons involuntarily unemployed."
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