In a rather unique case, the California Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the state's medical marijuana law, approved by voters in 1996, only protects users from criminal prosecution--it doesn't prohibit firms from disciplining or firing employees who use marijuana under the law. Needless to say, medical marijuana advocates are none too happy:
California is one of 12 states with medical marijuana laws. At least one of them, Rhode Island, specifically protects workers from being fired for their medical use of the drug, said Bruce Mirken of the Marijuana Policy Project, an advocacy group.
"The court is claiming that California voters intended to permit medical use of marijuana, but only if you're willing to be unemployed and on welfare," Mirken said. "That is ridiculous on its face, as well as cruel."
This raises an interesting question. Courts often consider the legislative history and intent of a statute in interpreting it. When the law is passed at the ballot box rather than by a legislature, how can you possibly ascertain what the law "intended"? Do you conduct a poll to figure out what the voters thought they meant? Do you ask the author of the proposition? How many people even considered a circumstance like this in deciding how to vote?
I say this as someone more sympathetic than most to the quirky, chaotic system that is the California ballot initiative process (I sent in my absentee ballot this week and was sort of disappointed to see only three propositions on it). The medical marijuana law is a poster child for how the system, despite all its flaws, can sometimes work well--it's a sound policy supported by a clear majority of voters, but one that would never have been approved by the legislature. The initiative system has its limitations, though, and divining "legislative intent" is certainly one.