By L.H. Nelson, US Navy veteran and public safety communications expert.
One of the hardest parts about writing for a organization whose purpose is to deliver information about the value of cannabis to veterans and first responders is the fact that veterans and first responders do not have the freedom to benefit from cannabis without facing serious consequences. For active duty military and first responders, it’s the threat of losing their job. For veterans, it’s the threat of losing their VA benefits. Because marijuana remains illegal under federal law, technically federal agents can come swinging down from their black helicopters and arrest anyone they want to, despite state laws put into effect by We the People legalizing it in one degree or another. But the reality is the casual user won’t be getting their doors knocked in by the men-in-black anytime soon. So what’s the big deal?
Employers are the big deal. Public safety employers are simply not willing to allow their current employees to utilize medical marijuana. But thankfully, more and more police, fire, and EMS agencies are softening their stance with regard to hiring candidates with a history of marijuana use. Cities such as Seattle, Phoenix, and Denver have reduced the amount of time a candidate has last utilized cannabis from three or more years to within the last 12 months. This is a big deal because it signals that our society as a whole is becoming more accepting of cannabis.
The great hypocrisy of cannabis legalization is that the same state and local governments enjoying the tax windfall, routinely prohibit their employees from enjoying the benefits of cannabis. In other words, cannabis is good enough to fund our schools, but too dangerous to be used by the brave men and women protecting our communities.
A common argument for allowing employees to use medicinal or recreational cannabis on their own time is that it should be treated the same as alcohol – drink if you want, but don’t come to work drunk. If you show up to work drunk, they will test you, find you guilty, and punish you. But employers argue that if you are drunk at work, people can smell it on your breath which makes on-duty detection very easy; something that cannabis cannot mimic. Well news flash – you can’t “smell” legal prescription drug use either, yet employers have found ways to identity workers impaired by prescription drug use or abuse.
Employer policies typically state that you cannot drink at work, nor can alcohol be found in your system while at work. So if we push employers to treat cannabis the same as alcohol, employers will have to take into account how much longer the substance will stay in your system. According to weedblog.com:
• A one-time user may show positive for 1–6 days
• Moderate users may show positive for 7–13 days
• Frequent users may show positive for 15+ days
• Heavy users may show positive for 30+ days
Simply put, if cannabis is found in your system you will soon be standing on the unemployment line – even if you did it legally, on your own time, and didn’t show up high to work. The way I see it, the only way around this is to put pressure on municipal, state, and federal employment policy makers to treat legal cannabis use the same as alcohol, but take into account the amount of time cannabis stays in your system. Just because I had a beer last Friday night, doesn’t mean I’m drunk on Monday. And if you tested me, I’d be clean. If I show up to work displaying the types of symptoms associated with intoxication, then conduct a reasonable cause test and absolutely fire me if I’m found intoxicated. But if I consumed cannabis Friday night, legally, then leave me the hell alone on Monday when I’m back to work bright eyed and bushy tailed. But again, if I show up to work displaying the types of symptoms associated with being high, then conduct a reasonable cause test and absolutely fire me if I’m found to be high on the job.
Believe it or not, not all municipalities take such a hard stance on this issue. According to an article on EMSWorld, the City of Camas in Washington State decided to treat marijuana usage among employees the same as alcohol. Of course it was met with a lot of resistance, but good for them for applying common sense.
So how can you get your employer to change their policies? Well, there really isn’t much you can do without potentially jeopardizing your own employment by admitting using cannabis against policy. However, organizations like HeroGrown exist to fight this fight on your behalf. There are also congressmen like Matt Gaetz (R-FL) who is calling on federal agencies to study the use of medical marijuana by police officers as a form of mental health and well-being. Late last year, the Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Act of 2017 came out to protect the “psychological health and well-being of law enforcement officers” and requires the Department of Justice (DOJ) to report on Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs mental health practices and services that could also benefit local police agencies. Gaetz introduced an amendment to that Act that would require them to include medical marijuana in the report. Gaetz later withdrew the amendment without forcing a vote, but left his fellow congressmen and women with a lot to consider about becoming more supportive in removing obstacles to cannabis research and its benefits to the mental health of law enforcement officers. Even Attorney General Jeff Sessions came out in support of cannabis on April 25th saying that he now believes cannabis could be used medicinally and that the government should begin to invest more in its research.
Hopefully veterans and first responders across all jurisdictions will someday have access to the medicine they need to effectively deal with the pain and psychological issues brought on by their service to the citizens of this country.