After a decade of aggressive cannabis reform in the U.S., 37 states have now legalized medical cannabis (MMJ). While most residents in these states only need to have a qualifying condition to get access, residents who belong to certain professions—such as healthcare workers—are prohibited from consumption regardless of medical need. To address this discrepancy, lawmakers in Austin, Texas are considering changing regulations to allow first responders to use medical cannabis.
The Demand Is There, but Is It Safe?
According to the city of Austin’s chief medical officer, Dr. Mark Escott, there are “significant numbers of folks who are impacted by trauma that they see, on EMS, fire, police and other departments that want to have [medical cannabis] as an option.” Although there is definitely a need for alternative therapies for many of the conditions first responders commonly live with (e.g., PTSD), as Escott stated, the concern is “more related to impairment.”
It is understandable that allowing first responders to utilize a potentially intoxicating substance must go under careful consideration, considering the high responsibility that comes with the job. However, it should be noted that Texas currently only allows “low-THC” products that contain 1% THC or less. To put this into perspective, most cannabis flower contains 10-25% THC.
It isn’t impossible to become intoxicated from this low of a THC concentration, but dysfunction is unlikely. It may even be safe to say that low-THC products present a lower risk of impairment than some of the psychiatric drugs prescribed to these individuals. Further, cannabis intoxication during free time rarely bleeds into work hours if done responsibly. However, as stated by Assistant City Manager Ray Arellano, “[the current medical cannabis law]’s silent on what a patient that’s using cannabis, low THC cannabis, may or may not do in their work setting.”
Exploring the Potential Outcomes of Expanding MMJ
With this in mind, Arellano surveyed 20 cities within legal cannabis states regarding their positions on medical cannabis and first responders. Of the 20, nine cities did not allow it, 10 did not respond, and one (Boston) reported allowing prescription cannabis for first responders. Unfortunately, these results don’t offer much insight into the frequency of on-the-job incidents or other conflicts that have led cities to ban first responders from cannabis use.
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Austin has already started experimenting with the idea of first responders and cannabis use. In the past, previous cannabis use would automatically disqualify people from medical positions, but staffing shortages led the Austin-Travis County EMS to remove questions pertaining to past cannabis use from its job applications. However, at this time, any first responders who test positive for cannabis are still subject to termination.
Several council members are in support of allowing first responders access to the medical cannabis program in the state. District 4 councilmember Jose “Chito” Vela stated that he was “very supportive of treating THC, marijuana, the way we treat other substances.” Of course, some barriers still exist. For example, first responders who carry weapons would still be barred from obtaining MMJ due to cannabis’ federally illegal status.
Firefighters Fighting for Medical Freedom
Brockton, a city in Massachusetts, took steps in 2017 to remove cannabis from drug tests faced by firefighters that are suspected to be intoxicated on the job. The department does not perform random drug screenings, but if someone is thought to be intoxicated on duty, one may be administered. In this jurisdiction, however, cannabis is no longer among the substances that firefighters are tested for.
A lawsuit was filed late last year by Levi Coleman, an Ogden, Utah firefighter and paramedic, against the city and his department after being placed on unpaid leave when he declined to surrender his medical cannabis status and prescription. Following that lawsuit, a bill known as the Medical Cannabis Patient Protection Amendments (SB46) was introduced to protect employees from discrimination and termination for having medical cannabis cards.
We reported on a similar story regarding a firefighter with the Buffalo Fire Department in New York. Scott Martin, who is an Afghanistan and Iraqi veteran, filed a lawsuit in the state of New York after being terminated for his legal, medical cannabis use. You can read that full story here.
At this time, no official legislation has been introduced in Austin regarding first responders’ use of MMJ; it is merely a topic of hot debate among city officials. However, many cannabis advocates feel that citizens who are trusted with protecting homes, cities, and lives should be trusted to utilize cannabis responsibly. Make sure to follow Veriheal for updates on this potential legislation.
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