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Zero-Tolerance Laws: What They Mean for Medical Marijuana Cardholders

This is not legal advice; this is an educational guide. For more information about your state’s laws, reach out to a licensed attorney in your area.

  • Zero-tolerance laws can be confusing, especially when states with medical marijuana programs enforce them. These laws affect drivers, employees, and housing renters alike.
  • Inaccurate drug tests make enforcement challenging, as they can pick up trace amounts of cannabis even after its effects have worn off.
  • Contradictions in state and federal laws further complicate zero-tolerance. However, many states have more relaxed laws that take medical marijuana users into account.

Medical marijuana use has grown quickly over a short period of time; most state programs are less than 12 years old. Plus, accessible healthcare providers have made it easier than ever to apply for a medical cannabis card online. While medical marijuana has been legalized in almost 40 states, about a third of these still have zero-tolerance laws in place.

Unfortunately, some states are behind on updating and amending zero-tolerance laws to accommodate medical marijuana cardholders.

Zero-tolerance laws are meant to prevent impaired driving or machinery operations. The problem, however, is that even if you aren’t actively intoxicated, drug tests will still pick up on the smallest traces of cannabis present from days or weeks earlier. But under zero-tolerance laws, these positive tests could still have legal consequences.

For patients who rely on medical marijuana for symptom relief, zero-tolerance laws can be complicated and frustrating. Learn more about what they mean for you and your treatment plan below.

What Are Zero-Tolerance Laws?

Zero-tolerance laws prohibit you from having any amount of an intoxicant in your system, even if you aren’t visibly impaired. In states where medical and/or recreational marijuana is legal, these laws are often outdated and contradictory—not to mention that marijuana metabolites can remain in your system even after its effects have worn off.

Zero-tolerance laws can affect several different areas of your life.

Here are some of the most common places you may encounter them:

  • Driving: In states with zero-tolerance driving laws, drivers are not allowed to have any trace of marijuana in their system while behind the wheel.
  • In the workplace: Employees working in zero-tolerance workplaces are prohibited from using marijuana while on the job, or from showing up to work in any way impaired.
  • When renting housing: Some landlords will put zero-tolerance policies into their lease agreements, prohibiting the use of marijuana while on the property.

Zero-tolerance laws often fail to account for medical marijuana cardholders, even in states where medical marijuana use is legal. But how exactly are these laws enforced?

The Complications of Enforcing Zero-Tolerance Laws

While at first glance zero-tolerance laws seem very straightforward (they are called “zero-tolerance,” after all), the enforcement of these laws is more nuanced than you’d think.

The main issue arises from drug testing accuracy. The two widely-used drug tests are:

  • Urinalysis: The most common type of drug test, urinalysis is great at detecting traces of cannabinoids and metabolites, but it isn’t an accurate way to measure your current state of impairment. Urine tests can detect traces of marijuana for weeks after use.
  • Saliva tests: While still slightly inaccurate, saliva tests are much better at determining how impaired you are at the time of the test. Many employers, for instance, are opting for these types of tests to attempt to accommodate legal marijuana use outside of work hours.

The issues surrounding drug testing most often come up when discussing workplace zero-tolerance policies.

Employers can choose to place a total ban on marijuana use, but it’s difficult to enforce this rule without constant drug testing, which can be expensive and time-consuming—not to mention a significant deterrent for potential employees.

Many work industries, particularly in construction and manufacturing, face lower employee pools due to zero-tolerance laws. The goals of these laws include reducing impaired driving and workplace accidents, but they neglect to consider people who rely on marijuana for medical reasons.

State vs. Federal Law

Currently, marijuana is designated as a Schedule I drug by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), making its use and/or possession illegal under federal law.

Employers and landlords who receive federal funding are, in many cases, required to comply with federal laws. So even if a state doesn’t have zero-tolerance laws in place, these groups may have to prohibit marijuana use in any capacity.

Even then, there are still nuances to enforcing zero-tolerance policies:

  • At work: Federally funded workplaces must comply with the Drug-Free Workplace Act, which bans all marijuana use or possession in the workplace. But under this act, employers aren’t mandated to regularly drug test employees, complicating its enforcement.
  • Renting: Medical marijuana users aren’t protected under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, which typically protects housing rights for people with disabilities. However, there are certain states with anti-discrimination laws that can protect your rights despite zero-tolerance policies.

If you’re concerned about your rights, there may be a state precedent in your favor.

Alternatives to Zero-Tolerance Laws

Only a small number of states where medical marijuana is legal—12, to be exact—have zero-tolerance driving laws in place. Of those states:

  • Seven have exceptions for medical marijuana cardholders who are not impaired
  • Five make no exceptions for medical marijuana cardholders

States are beginning to catch up when it comes to their stances on medical marijuana and impaired driving laws.

Most states enforce one of the following zero-tolerance alternatives:

  • Per se laws: These laws soften the strictness of zero-tolerance laws. Instead of prohibiting the presence of any trace of cannabis, per se laws allow a small amount of cannabis to be present in your body while doing things like driving or working. Specific amounts vary by state but are usually between 1 and 5 ng/mL.
  • Permissible inference law: This law is slightly less restrictive than per se laws. Drivers with marijuana amounts of 5 ng/mL or more can be permissibly considered impaired. Currently, Colorado is the only state enforcing this law.
  • Driving under the influence of drugs (DUID) laws: These are the most common laws you’ll find across the country, with 22 states currently enforcing them. They are also the most lenient. They require proof that a driver was actually impaired while behind the wheel, so a positive drug test isn’t enough to convict.

The goal of zero-tolerance laws is to reduce accidents, but reasonable enforcement strategies haven’t always caught up with other relevant laws surrounding marijuana. Hopefully, as regulations evolve, even more states will direct more concern toward impaired driving and less toward trace amounts of marijuana in a driver’s system.

Traveling as a Medical Marijuana Cardholder

Not all states have zero-tolerance laws; you might be lucky enough to live in a state with more lenient per se or DUID laws. However, as a medical marijuana cardholder, it’s still important to familiarize yourself with these laws so you’re never caught unaware.

Odds are, you won’t always be in your home state. You may have to travel across state lines for a friend’s wedding, or maybe you just need a vacation and some fresh scenery.

No matter where life takes you, you should never have to be without your medication or be at risk of breaking the law.

Until states catch up with their legalization of medical marijuana, it’s your responsibility to stay up-to-date on the latest laws whenever you travel. In addition to zero-tolerance laws, keep in mind:

  • Legal marijuana possession amounts (if any)
  • Medical card reciprocity laws
  • International drug laws

You know how vital medical marijuana is to your unique healing journey, but not everyone sees it the same way. Protect your safety and well-being by being as informed as you can.

TeleLeaf Has Answers to All Your Medical Marijuana Questions

Zero-tolerance laws can be a confusing realm to navigate as a medical marijuana cardholder. It’s not always obvious what the rules are, or how you’re meant to comply with them when you need to use cannabis for your general wellbeing.

That’s why you need an expert support system that has your back. At TeleLeaf, we’re here to help patients get answers to all of their questions about cannabis, from clinical applications to local regulations. Our unmatched patient support makes us the best online medical marijuana card service available today.

Chat with one of our compassionate support representatives today to learn more.


National Conference of State Legislatures. State Medical Cannabis Laws

Governors Highway Safety Association. Drug Impaired Driving

Archbright. With the Legalization of Medical and Recreational Marijuana, Is Zero Tolerance Still Realistic for Employers?

Multifamily Executive. Cannabis Conundrum: What the New Pot Laws Mean to Multifamily

Marijuana Policy Project. Medical Cannabis Laws and Anti-Discrimination Provisions

Marijuana Policy Project. DUID and Medical Cannabis

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