Cities' Closure of Medical Marijuana Dispensaries Is Not Discrimination Under Americans with Disabilities Act

May 29, 2012, by Krysten Hicks, Ruthann G. Ziegler

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently issued an opinion declaring that the federal Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") does not protect medical marijuana users claiming discrimination based on their use of marijuana. In James v. City of Costa Mesa, the Court held that doctor-recommended marijuana use, authorized by state law, but prohibited by federal law, is an illegal use of drugs for purposes of the ADA.  (No. 10-55769, May 21, 2012.)  This ruling highlights the continued conflict between state and federal law over the use of marijuana for medical purposes, and recognizes that marijuana has no legitimate use under federal law.

Plaintiffs sought to prevent the efforts by the cities of Costa Mesa and Lake Forest ("Cities") to close medical marijuana collectives; plaintiffs' theory was that the Cities’ actions of closing the collectives interfered with plaintiffs’ access to medical marijuana. Plaintiffs further alleged that the closure of the collectives amounted to discrimination in the provision of public services, thus violating the ADA. 

The ADA provides protection to "any qualified individual with a disability."  However, the ADA also specifies that an "'individual with a disability" does not include an individual who is currently engaging in the illegal use of drugs….'" (Id. 5289.)   Plaintiffs contended that, because California law allows for a doctor to make a recommendation for marijuana use, their marijuana use should fall within ADA's protection.

The Ninth Circuit disagreed, holding that the ADA did not protect plaintiffs’ medical marijuana use.  The Court recognized that the ADA’s definition of "illegal use of drugs" did not include drugs taken under the supervision of a doctor.  However, because the federal Controlled Substances Act states that marijuana is an unlawful controlled substance that has "no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States," (Id.), the Court found that the ADA did not provide an exception allowing the use of medical marijuana.  Thus, the term "individual with a disability," according to the Court, did not include an individual currently engaging in the illegal use of drugs.  The Court was careful to note, however, that the opinion did not mean those individuals were not protected by the ADA on the basis of other disabilities; rather, they were not entitled to protection on the basis of marijuana use.

Although the Ninth Circuit suggested that the federal government’s view on medical marijuana may be evolving, this opinion highlights the continuing conflict between state and federal law over the use of marijuana for medical purposes.  Furthermore, the decision recognizes that local governments’ efforts to close medical marijuana collectives does not expose the local governments to federal liability.  

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