Hilton is charging Mary Zimmerman a $45 smoking fee because one of her relatives smoked in a hotel room.
Well, of course she did. It was a smoking room.
But, according to the hotel, it wasn’t only that Zimmerman’s relative reserved a smoking room, but what she smoked: medical marijuana. And so begins one of the odder cases we’ve encountered lately, which serves as a warning to anyone who smokes. Watch what you stick in your pipe. It could cost you.
An unidentified charge on Zimmerman’s credit card from the Hampton Inn in Lincoln, Ill., appeared mysteriously a few days after she and her family had checked out. Zimmerman immediately contacted both the hotel and Hilton, Hampton Inn’s parent company, to dispute it.
Receiving unsympathetic replies and denials of a refund from both of those sources, Zimmerman contacted our advocates for help. She told us of her conversation with an employee at the front desk of the hotel.
“The actual hotel manager has never called me back although I’ve called twice to talk to her,” she told us. “No response. No explanation of the charge except from their desk clerk. She was very rude.”
The paper trail she sent us also included the initial email response from Hilton customer care. Their response stated they were “unable to waive or offer a refund for the charges in question. We sincerely apologize for any inconvenience.”
To our advocate, this looked like a simple case of a smoking fee that was assessed either mistakenly or arbitrarily to a hotel guest. We frequently resolve similar cases for travelers who write to us on our website.
Simple, we thought, until we read Zimmerman’s response to Hilton. That’s when the case took an interesting and unexpected turn. In her appeal of Hilton’s denial, Zimmerman wrote:
One of our family members has fibromyalgia and has a medical marijuana license, legal in the state of Illinois. The smoking room was for that family member’s use.
The Lincoln, Ill., Hampton Inn has no reason to charge $45 for a smoking room. It’s not so much that it’s $45, it’s that it’s morally wrong. We rented a smoking room. That’s what a smoking room is for.
Our advocate realized that this wasn’t a smoking charge case. This was a case about the rapidly changing and diverse laws regarding medical marijuana and how those laws will inevitably affect the hospitality industry, and are doing so right now.
Zimmerman’s situation presents an interesting conundrum. Medical marijuana use has been legally approved by 29 states and the District of Columbia. Illinois is among those states.
However, marijuana, regardless of its use, is still classified as a Schedule I controlled substance under the Federal Controlled Substance Act (CSA) enacted in 1970.
The seemingly diametrical opposition of state and federal laws about marijuana has been the subject of pages of legal opinions, and numerous legislative actions. To make matters worse, the laws currently on the books are vastly different across the states in which medical marijuana has been legalized.
Further research by our advocates failed to locate any published case law that addressed the specific issue of smoking medical marijuana in a hotel room designated as a “smoking room.” This seems to put Zimmerman, licensed medical marijuana patients and the hospitality industry in a virtually unexplored and unknown territory.
We specifically reviewed the State of Illinois’ Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act, and contacted the Lincoln Police Department. Neither provided any rule or ordinance that prohibited smoking medical marijuana in a room designated for smoking.
The law in Illinois does prohibit smoking marijuana, medical or otherwise, “knowingly in close proximity to anyone under the age of 18.” This could preclude hotel smoking, depending on its interpretation. But this is only an assumption and doesn’t resolve the larger issue of how to create policies for a multistate business that takes into account the developing laws throughout our country.
A local hotel representative referred our questions to the Hilton advice team, a group that is available to the properties for questions and issues. The team “[does] not provide legal advice, and [does not] have specific direction to the properties within the brand, as it is a state-to-state issue.”
They did say this:
- Due to the fact that marijuana (medical or not) is still illegal under federal law, the ADA does not recognize it. Therefore we can ask for an individual’s license to carry/use.
- We can also prohibit smoking of any kind (including for medical) in guest rooms, as it is federally an illegal substance.
The representative told our advocate:
Many states that allow medicinal use dictate that it can only be consumed in a private residence. Others mandate it can only be consumed in private (that one is more open ended). We are consulting an attorney regarding more specific Illinois law, however there really is no case law yet to give clear direction.
At this time we are and will charge a fee up to $250 (our typical smoking fee) for getting the room back to normal rentable use.
While this appears to resolve the question in this specific case, other questions remain unresolved. Things like: What about other hotel guests in the vicinity? What about children being exposed to secondhand smoke through the ventilation system? It’s undoubtedly going to take rooms full of corporate and government lawyers to answer these questions, along with a host of other questions that have not been considered.
While we were continuing to gather information in this matter, we received an email from Zimmerman informing us that she had received a credit of $45 to her credit card from Hampton Inn.
The number of cases similar to Zimmerman’s is destined to increase. We don’t know the answers, and Hilton leaves the answers up to the discretion of the management of its various brands. But we definitively know that even if you are legally registered and prescribed medical marijuana at this particular property, and choose to light up, you’re going to be hit with a smoking fee, and you may want to advise the front desk before you start smoking.
One last thing: when asked about Zimmerman’s chargeback, the representative was very clear,
“We are not refunding the charge for the cleaning. When we receive the dispute we will file the appropriate paperwork and [the smoking charge will] be recharged to her.”
It looks like Zimmerman’s $45 is going up in smoke.