We’ve long known that drug addiction is an impairment covered by the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). That means that employers, law enforcement, jails, healthcare providers and others are prohibited from discriminating against people who suffer from substance use disorders.
That doesn’t mean your employer can’t prohibit you from using illegal drugs. It means, more or less, that you can’t face negative job consequences simply for being addicted, as long as you are getting treatment for that addiction.
Now, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division has clarified that the ADA’s protection extends to people who use evidence-based treatments for opioid use disorders, including the prescription drugs methadone and buprenorphine, which are themselves opioids. The protection already extended to people who are legally prescribed opioid pain medications to treat other medical conditions.
The message that these opioid-based treatments are protected is extremely important in light of the ongoing opioid overdose crisis. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 100,000 people died last year of opioid overdoses, which include overdoses of prescription painkillers, morphine or heroin. That was the highest number of annual deaths yet recorded.
“People who have stopped illegally using drugs should not face discrimination when accessing evidence-based treatment or continuing on their path of recovery,” says an assistant attorney general of the clarification.
The Civil Rights Division says that this is not a new policy but a clarification of existing law.
Justice Department has been working to enforce this policy
According to the Associated Press, the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division has initiated several enforcement actions against organizations it thinks might be violating the ADA by discriminating against people in treatment for opioid use disorders.
For example, it has sued the Pennsylvania judicial system because some courts there allegedly prohibit or limit the use of methadone and buprenorphine by people in court supervision programs. The agency settled with the Massachusetts court system last month over similar allegations.
The agency also sent a letter recently to the Indiana State Board of Nursing, which had decided to remove a nurse from required licensing because she was using an opioid-based medication to treat her addiction.
If you are being treated with methadone or buprenorphine to help you overcome an opioid use disorder, our hearts go out to you. You shouldn’t have to put up with discrimination as you work to get your life back on track. If you think you have experienced job discrimination for this reason, a lawyer can help you understand your legal rights.
Leigh Law Group represents employees throughout California in ADA cases.