Last week Amazon was sued over alleged employment law violations. The lawsuit asserts the plaintiff was unlawfully terminated after reporting a co-worker for using mushrooms that naturally contained an active but illegal psychoactive chemical called psilocybin.
Why it Matters:
Psilocybin and similar psychedelic compounds are considered Schedule I substances. This means they are illegal under federal law and under many state laws, including Michigan. Like medical marijuana usage, with decriminalizing and more research showing psychedelics as a viable therapeutic alternative in treating depression, substance use disorders, and other mental illnesses, employers should expect to see more workplace issues like those involved in the lawsuit against Amazon.
Turning back to the lawsuit, Larkin v. Amazon.com Services, LLC, Case No. 3:22-cv-00942, the Complaint asserts plaintiff reported to Amazon’s Investigations unit that an employee was using the illegal drug, psilocybin mushrooms. Plaintiff alleged he believed the use of the mushrooms was a felony and a workplace hazard to public health and safety. Amazon allegedly did not discipline the employee reported to have used the psilocybin mushrooms. Instead, Plaintiff alleges he became the subject of an Amazon investigation and was eventually terminated. Plaintiff was told his termination was because he failed to disclose an improper relationship between two other Amazon employees — a violation of Amazon’s employee policy.
These are just the allegations in the complaint. No doubt these claims will be thoroughly litigated and contested.
But coincidentally, the same week Amazon was sued for discrimination over psilocybin mushrooms, an initiative to put on the 2022 ballot a proposal asking Michigan voters to decriminalize certain psychedelic plants and fungi was put on hold.
The “Michigan Decriminalization of Psilocybin Mushrooms and Other Plants and Fungi Initiative,” was approved at the beginning of the year by Michigan’s Board of Canvassers. But with only 180 days to gather enough signatures to put it on the 2022 ballot, the group spearheading the Initiative announced they would instead seek to put the Initiative on the 2024 ballot. Here’s a press release from Myc Williams, the campaign manager for the Initiative:
It’s time to refocus our energy. We knew a June 1st deadline make the 2022 ballot was ambitious with just over two months to collect, and now we know we have the momentum necessary to move forward with a normal 180[-day] collection period. We’ll see ya at the polls in 2024.
Decriminalizing Mushroom and Plant Psychedelics and HR
A wealth of research shows that mushrooms containing psilocybin are generally considered physiologically safe and have shown medical benefits in treating depression, substance use disorders, and other mental illnesses. See, e.g., David E. Nichols, Psychedelics, 68 PHARMACOLOGICAL REVIEWS 264, 266 (2016).
Yet these benefits don’t change the illegal standing psychedelic mushrooms and similar compounds are psilocybin. And going back to the lawsuit against Amazon, employers generally need not accommodate an employee’s use of an illegal drug – even if that drug is used to treat a condition that would otherwise be protected under Michigan or federal anti-discrimination laws. Similarly, terminating an employee for reporting illegal drug use exposes an employer to legal liability. And while Amazon will likely contend its termination of the plaintiff was not for reporting illegal drug use or otherwise not unlawful, it will be making that argument in a federal lawsuit.
The tension between using an illegal substance to treat a condition and workplace accommodation laws became a frequent issue for employers when Michigan and many other states began decriminalizing the use of marijuana for medical or recreational use. And given the promise of psychedelics as viable therapeutic alternatives in treating depression, substance use disorders, and other mental illnesses, companies will need to decide how to handle such use by employees. Despite similar medical benefits of marijuana use, it was only after Michigan law largely decriminalized marijuana use did employers move away from workplace policies that strictly penalized marijuana use. Psychedelic compounds would likely follow the same course if legalized at the state level.
On this note, one thing I would like to see on a future ballot initiative to legalize psychedelic compounds is statutory guidance for companies and individuals. One area, in particular, would address the use of natural plants and mushrooms as a reasonable workplace accommodation.
Use this link to contact Michigan attorney Jason Shinn if you have questions about this article or complying with Michigan or federal employment laws. Since 2001, Mr. Shinn has represented companies and individuals concerning the issues discussed above and other employment matters under federal and Michigan employment laws.