Prop 19, Employment at Will, and Social Peace

Writing at CNN, my colleague Jeffrey Miron puts his finger on one reason for the disappointing defeat of California’s Prop 19:

Prop 19 failed also because it overreached. One feature attempted to protect the “rights” of employees who get fired or disciplined for using marijuana, including a provision that employers could only discipline marijuana use that “actually impairs job performance.” That is a much higher bar than required by current policy.

Like so many other developments in employment law in recent years, this would have chipped away at the basic principle of employment at will, which holds that in the absence of a contract specifying otherwise, either party to an employment relation may end that relation at any time for any reason or for no reason at all.

It was no doubt inevitable that the proposition would fare poorly among self-identified conservatives and older voters. But the “users’ rights” provisions were enough to raise doubts even among liberty-minded thinkers like David Henderson, who predicted that by signaling hostility toward freedom of association, such provisions would “make the drug-legalization hill even steeper.”

Marijuana of course remains illegal under federal law, which means that its consumption would at one and the same time have been 1) protected under employment-discrimination rules, and 2) illegal and subject to prison sentences. If this paradox seems vaguely familiar, maybe it’s because not that many years ago – before the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision in Lawrence v. Texas – there were localities where consenting homosexual conduct was simultaneously protected under one set of laws, and unlawful under another. Indeed, there were more than a few advocacy groups that worked to promote the new controls over employer decisionmaking and yet never troubled themselves to work for repeal of the still-on-the-books anti-gay prohibitions. If the goal is to achieve social peace, however, rather than wage constant culture war on each other, you’d think the “leave people alone” message would hold more appeal than the “fall in line or you’ll hear from our lawyers” message.

Jeffrey Miron surmises, no doubt rightly, that the problem of undislodgeable tenured stoners in the workplace would be more the exception than the rule. Yet it’s worth noting that the issue has already arisen in various lawsuits in which workers with a doctor’s note recommending marijuana use have contested firings. Lawyers have also eagerly cobbled together suits over related issues, as with this class action noted less than two years ago at my other website, Overlawyered:

Starbucks’s job application asked prospective baristas if they’d been convicted of a crime in the past seven years and added for “CALIFORNIA APPLICANTS ONLY”, at the end, that minor marijuana possession convictions more than two years old didn’t have to be disclosed, in accord with a state law along those lines. Entrepreneurial lawyers then tried to steam-press $26 million or so out of the coffee chain on the following theory: that the clarification was placed too far down the application after the original question; that Starbucks had therefore violated the California Labor Code; and that each and every Starbucks job applicant in California since June 2004, perhaps 135,000 persons, was owed $200 in statutory damages regardless of whether they had suffered any harm. Per John Sullivan of the Civil Justice Association of California, the lawyers also took the position that “it didn’t matter that two of the three job applicants who signed on as named plaintiffs testified in court that they read the entire application and knew they didn’t have to mention a marijuana conviction (which neither had anyway!)” The court refused to certify the class and made the following observations (courtesy CJAC blog):

* “There are better ways to filter out impermissible questions on job applications than allowing ‘lawyer bounty hunter’ lawsuits brought on behalf of tens of thousands of unaffected job applicants. Plaintiffs’ strained efforts to use the marijuana reform legislation to recover millions of dollars from Starbucks gives a bizarre new dimension to the every day expressions ‘coffee joint’ and ‘coffee pot.’”… “The civil justice system is not well-served by turning Starbucks into a Daddy Warbucks.”

Ilya Somin at Volokh Conspiracy notes that “the case against the War on Drugs and other ‘morals’ regulations is very similar to the standard conservative critique of economic regulation.” But if a much-needed rollback of morals regulation is made the excuse for an expansion of economic regulation, there may be grounds to wonder whether the goal is truly freedom at all.