The medical marijuana movement has hit the wall of resistance.It is in the form of one Joseph Casias, a 29-year-old father of two with a brain tumor and sinus cancer who was fired by Wal-Mart for testing positive for marijuana in his system. The State of Michigan says he is allowed to smoke marijuana to ease his chronic pain. Wal-Mart says too bad. It is now Casias’ turn to bring it to court.

To think about it, it probably makes sense that any major progress in the movement — and towards ultimately ending the War on Drugs –  would involve winning a titular battle against Wal-Mart, the socially conservative bastion of globalization’s crudest but most cardinal rewards (cheap stuff, cheap labor and ever-expanding commercial hegemony), which has become synonymous with American culture, industry and even politics. It also employs 1.4 million Americans and runs some 4,300 stores (including Sam’s Clubs) world-wide.

In other words, if the prevailing medical marijuana movement can win its first high profile employee discrimination case – one that involves Wal-Mart Inc. — then it is well on its way to winning the war.

If not, it could be a fatal blow. Because no matter how far the politics and the law has come regarding the ability for sick people to access medical marijuana in their state without prosecution, if the nation’s largest private employer isn’t on board, their medical cards won’t be worth the paper they’re written on.

Let’s face it, the days of “Stop the Wal” are already in the rearview. Politically well-connected and at least partly responsible for the 10-year $186 billion trade deficit with China, Wal-Mart has positioned itself artfully as the savior of modest households strapped by the current recession. In fact they’ve profited from it. Families can buy more, for less (emphasis on more), including food and cheap prescription drugs, at Wal-Mart – and 64 percent of Americans in the last three months have, according to statistics.

And with so many Americans on the payroll, Wal-Mart has its big old thumb on a lot of (struggling) communities nationwide. One big happy family.

Except of course for Casias, who lives in Battle Creek, Michigan. Reflecting the unreconstructed tone of the Republican establishment it has long identified with, Wal-Mart has in effect taken a stand against Michigan’s new medical marijuana law and has unceremoniously tossed Casias — one of its vaunted salt-of-the-earth American “associates” — into the street like so much rubbish.

Now Casias finds himself in a formidable, but probably an unenviable position, having to decide whether to test one of the country’s most comprehensive medical marijuana laws against one of the only places still employing his friends and neighbors in Battle Creek.

But if Goliath can be brought to heel in this epic War on Drugs, to prove that yes, the will of the people in one state supercedes even the biggest global corporate behemoth, then maybe guys like Joe Casias won’t have to choose between their job security and relieving their physical pain, between the well-being of their families and the personal choice not to medicate with narcotics and psychotropic drugs.

Joe Casias

For 11 years, Casias has been living with sinus cancer, which has gotten so bad that it makes his voice sound so painfully obstructed that it is difficult to understand what he is saying. He looks older than his 29 years, his face drawn, his body rail-thin. He is a father of two young children, ages 7 and 8. It is difficult not to get emotionally drawn into his painful story.

Casias has been working at  Wal-Mart for five years and was such a model employee that at one point had been named “associate of the year.” Last fall he was promoted — a proud moment for Casias — which allowed him to finally enroll in the company’s self-funded health care plan. Up to that point, he had been one of the nation’s 40-plus uninsured and was swimming in medical bills and struggling to keep up with collection agency payment plans.

One day during November, he sprained his knee on the job and after being directed to the emergency room for care, was put through a company-mandated drug test. He tested positive for marijuana because for at least four months, Casias had been smoking marijuana – which is legally sanctioned in the State of Michigan –  to relieve his chronic pain in lieu of prescription pain killers.

Claiming that Casias had violated the company’s zero-tolerance drug policy, Wal-Mart fired him on the spot — five years and several pounds of flesh snuffed in an instant.

“I never went to work under the influence – I would never do that,” Casias told me in an interview from home last week. “I gave them everything I got.”

But smoking, he said, allowed him to avoid the pills, which he said were habit forming and had nasty side affects. Coincidentally, 63 percent of Michigan voters felt he should be able to have that option, passing the Michigan Medicinal Marijuana Act on a ballot referendum in 2008. The law allows Casias to carry a medical card and to have up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana, purchased from licensed caregivers, who can legally grow 12 plants at one time.

Furthermore, the law states that people like Casias cannot be discriminated against for medicating legally with marijuana:

From the law:

Sec. 4. (a) A qualifying patient who has been issued and possesses a registry identification card shall not be subject to arrest, prosecution, or penalty in any manner, or denied any right or privilege, including but not limited to civil penalty or disciplinary action by a business or occupational or professional licensing board or bureau, for the medical use of marihuana in accordance with this act, provided that the qualifying patient possesses an amount of marihuana that does not exceed 2.5 ounces of usable marihuana, and, if the qualifying patient has not specified that a primary caregiver will be allowed under state law to cultivate marihuana for the qualifying patient, 12 marihuana plants kept in an enclosed, locked facility. Any incidental amount of seeds, stalks, and unusable roots shall also be allowed under state law and shall not be included in this amount.

“We think it’s illegal to fire somebody for using medical marijuana in accordance with state law,” charges Dan Korobkin, an attorney for the Michigan American Civil Liberties Union, which appears prepared to take on a fight with Wal-Mart. “Firing somebody for doing something that is within the law when they have been a model employee … it’s immoral and wrong.”

This troubling story has drawn swift support for Casias, and similar condemnations from strangers who likely sense some of his acute vulnerability in themselves.  He says he is grateful for all of the outreach, but he is mostly concerned with taking care of his family. “There is really no other job for me to get,” he said, telling me he had once aspired to store manager, even district manager at Wal-Mart.

“Just look around Michigan – there are no jobs. Wal-Mart is one of the only places employing people,” he told me matter-of-factly.

“I can’t pay the bills. Everytime  I look at (my children) … you know there are things children need – clothes, food, a roof over their heads. It’s expensive.”

When he speaks about his former employer is it heartbreaking – there is no malice, but instead a sad confusion about the betrayal. It happened so fast, his apparent fall from grace and re-emergence as a movement martyr, that he has cried openly and is visibly shaken. Why not? He’s not made of China plastic – his fate now, being jobless and swimming in unpaid medical bills, is clearly uncertain.

“I have so many hospital bills in collections. I’m trying to make payments. I finally get on health care and then I lose my job. The thing I don’t really understand is that I tried my best. I don’t think I deserve to get fired. I never harmed anybody, I never harmed any customers or associates, never in the whole time,” he said.

Wal-Mart was so righteous in its move to sever all ties with this heretofore loyal associate, that it initially tired to block his access to unemployment benefits, too. “This is not acceptable ,” said Mike Meno of the Washington-based Marijuana Policy Project, which launched a boycott of Wal-Mart, shortly after the story broke. “This is a guy with kids. Not only is this shameful neglect and immoral, but it is potentially illegal.”

Perhaps sensing the growing public outrage (and with an eye towards pre-empting civil action) the company now says it will not object to Casias collecting unemployment. However, Walmart has no plans to hire him back, recently releasing this statement to the media:

“In states such as Michigan, where prescriptions for marijuana can be obtained, an employer can still enforce a policy that requires termination of employment following a positive drug screen. We believe our policy complies with the law, and we support decisions based on the policy.”

Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum

That Walmart is drawing a line in the sand against medical marijuana – which has been legalized in 14 states and is being debated by at least 16 others today – shouldn’t come as any surprise. Sure, we are outraged by the seeming cold-bloodedness in the company’s statement that it is “sympathetic to Mr. Casias’ condition,” the company at once living up to the long-spun image of the Death Star, grinding up new communities and dispatching misfit employees with detached laser precision.

But the vision of Sam Walton, founder of this empire based out of Bentonville, Arkansas, has never really wavered from the “Gospel of Christian free enterprise,” which is more than not tailor made for the Republican social conservative agenda in Washington. In fact, until this year, Wal-Mart stores and the Walton family had long been generous supporters of Republican federal candidates and causes (they’ve been spreading the love now that Democrats are in charge).  The corporation often wades into political minefields – at one point being accused of openly telling its employees to vote Republican in the 2008 presidential election.

All this to say, that as Republicans in Washington have largely amassed on the side of prohibition where marijuana is concerned, my guess is that Wal-Mart, at least in ideological principle, has likely already shifted there too, along with lawmakers like Sen. Tom Coburn, (R-OK), who thinks most medical marijuana users are fakers and Rep. Mark Souder, (R-IN) who says “smoked marijuana, along with tobacco and alcohol, is the gateway drug for all other drug abuse.”

If that is the case, then Casias’ firing – aside from a cynical move to avoid taking on the poor guy’s medical costs — could be making a 29-year-old cancer patient with two young children an example; an opening salvo in a nationwide fight to resist new medical marijuana protections at all costs.

“I think it is very significant that one of the largest employers in the United States – if not the largest – appears to be taking a position that employees have to choose between their jobs, which they do well, and treating their disease and treating their pain in a way that is recognized under the law. Especially in Michigan, which has the highest unemployment rate in the country now… it’s irrational and it’s illegal,” said Korobkin.

The Michigan Medical Marijuana Association recently organized a protest rally in front of the Battle Creek store. Unfortunately, Wal-Mart typically weathers such public displays pretty well. Except of course, when protests are coming from the Right, then it tends to give in skittishly.

Greg Francisco of the MMMA says Wal-Mart is just the razor-edged peak of a potential ice-berg facing the Michigan medical marijuana movement in the coming months and years. Several towns and cities have filed ordinances to derail the law, despite  popular support and more than 20,000 residents who have applied for medical cards. But he welcomes the fight, which will likely reflect other skirmishes across the country as medical marijuana becomes more legalized, more culturally accepted (a whopping 44 percent of Americans are now in favor of legalizing marijuana altogether) and more threatening to the social conservative status quo.

“I think collectively, it has a positive effect,” Francisco said, because the movement supporters get more publicity the more they have to crowd town meetings to raise a stink. So far they’re waiting for a “test case” to go full throttle against what they say are illegal restrictions being placed on patients under new ordinances.

Casias doesn’t necessary feel comfortable being a test case, nor a David, though he might very well be, in a courtroom, or at the very least, the court of public opinion.

****

Casias asked me quite humbly to tag my piece with this personal note, as he feels that in some ways he is taking more than he can give right now (and other reporters have blown his request off):

I would like to thank the Michigan Medical Marijuana Assoc,. the American Medical Marijuana Association, the MPP and all of the support from bc hydro, cereal city compassion club, kalamazoo compassion club, Greatlakes compassion club and all the people from around the world for their support and prayers but most of all my wife and kids my family and friends and my lord and savior Jesus Christ.

Amen