Med­i­cal pot use can dis­rupt job search for New Mex­i­cans

The Taos News - - BUSINESS - By Robert Nott [email protected]­i­ Al­bu­querque Jour­nal,

Pain from the knife wound re­mained in­tense long af­ter the al­ter­ca­tion that Colin Teno­rio was in­volved in at a city park in the sum­mer of 2015.

The 23-year-old from Santo Domingo Pue­blo said he was de­fend­ing him­self against an un­known assailant when he suf­fered a bloody wound to his left arm that re­quired two surg­eries.

Two years later, Teno­rio was still in pain. He tried var­i­ous med­i­cal reme­dies, in­clud­ing the highly ad­dic­tive oxy­codone, but noth­ing quite worked. In Fe­bru­ary, af­ter study­ing the ben­e­fits of var­i­ous strains of med­i­cal mar­i­juana, he re­ceived a li­cense to legally use it to com­bat the pain.

“It calmed me down, re­laxed my body,” he said.

The pain di­min­ished. But a new agony awaited: Teno­rio couldn’t get a job be­cause so many lo­cal em­ploy­ers re­quired him to take a drug test as a con­di­tion of em­ploy­ment.

“I fig­ured I could get a job, no prob­lem,” he said. “It didn’t even come to mind that I would have any trou­ble. It’s not like I smoke (mar­i­juana) to get high. I just didn’t know us­ing it would cost me jobs.”

Teno­rio’s story is not unique, said Jes­sica Ge­lay, pol­icy man­ager for the Drug Pol­icy Al­liance of New Mex­ico.

“It’s a big prob­lem,” she said. “Med­i­cal cannabis pa­tients should be able to use their medicine like ev­ery­one else, but the fed­eral pro­hi­bi­tion is ex­tremely prob­lem­atic. Our state law has no pro­tec­tions for peo­ple who are seek­ing em­ploy­ment.”

Cur­rently, about 58,000 New Mex­i­cans, in­clud­ing 1,430 in Taos County, 270 in Col­fax County and 6,760 in Santa Fe County, have le­gal ac­cess to med­i­cal cannabis as of Oc­to­ber, ac­cord­ing to the New Mex­ico De­part­ment of Health. These are pa­tients suf­fer­ing from a num­ber of ap­proved ail­ments and dis­eases, in­clud­ing can­cer, HIV/AIDS and chronic pain, who ben­e­fit from a state law ap­proved in 2007 by both the Leg­is­la­ture and then Gov. Bill Richard­son.

But there are com­pli­ca­tions for those pa­tients seek­ing work. Un­der the fed­eral Con­trolled Sub­stances Act, cannabis is clas­si­fied as a Sched­ule I drug, the same cat­e­gory as heroin and LSD, all con­sid­ered highly ad­dic­tive and with­out med­i­cal value. Thus, Ge­lay said, any New Mex­ico em­ploy­ers that have any ties to the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, in­clud­ing Los Alamos Na­tional Lab­o­ra­tory, and any en­ti­ties, such as med­i­cal groups, that re­ceive fed­eral funds, likely have drug test­ing poli­cies in place.

Other lo­cal em­ploy­ers, such as na­tional chain stores, also may have drug test re­quire­ments and of­fer lit­tle, if any, flex­i­bil­ity for ap­pli­cants who legally use med­i­cal cannabis.

Teno­rio said he dis­cov­ered this as he ap­plied for jobs in su­per­mar­kets and med­i­cal and ve­teri­nary of­fices.

The sit­u­a­tion also has led to at least one court case in New Mex­ico. Donna Smith, a mil­i­tary vet­eran who said she was sex­u­ally as­saulted while in the ser­vice and suf­fered from post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der, sued Pres­by­te­rian Health­care Ser­vices in Al­bu­querque af­ter it asked her to sub­mit to a urine test.

The re­sults tested pos­i­tive for mar­i­juana, and Smith, who was us­ing med­i­cal cannabis and had al­ready be­gun work­ing as a physi­cian as­sis­tant, said she was fired.

She launched a law­suit against Pres­by­te­rian in the sum­mer of 2014. At the time, the com­pany is­sued a state­ment say­ing “the use of med­i­cal mar­i­juana is not rec­og­nized by fed­eral law and Pres­by­te­rian has a man­date un­der fed­eral law to pro­vide a drug-free work­place.”

In the sum­mer of 2015, a state district judge ruled in fa­vor of Pres­by­te­rian, lead­ing Smith to tell the “What’s the point of hav­ing a med­i­cal pro­gram at all if it’s not com­pas­sion­ate?”

Ef­forts to reach Smith for com­ment were un­suc­cess­ful.

Ge­lay said she has talked to med­i­cal per­son­nel, in­clud­ing nurses, who use med­i­cal mar­i­juana and as a re­sult have been ruled out for jobs that re­quire drug test­ing.

Some med­i­cal in­sti­tu­tions, like Chris­tus St. Vin­cent Re­gional Med­i­cal Cen­ter, will hire work­ers with med­i­cal cannabis li­censes, hos­pi­tal spokesman Arturo Del­gado said.

While the hos­pi­tal con­ducts both pre-em­ploy­ment and random drug tests, “We do honor med­i­cal mar­i­juana cards if they have been is­sued by a physi­cian,” he said.

Still, where fed­eral law is con­cerned, it’s an up­hill bat­tle for those us­ing med­i­cal mar­i­juana, said state Sen. Cisco McSor­ley, an Al­bu­querque Demo­crat who car­ried the bill that cre­ated the Med­i­cal Cannabis Pro­gram.

“The big­gest part of this prob­lem is where cer­tain em­ploy­ers are bound by fed­eral law,” he said. “There’s noth­ing we can do about that as a state. Oth­er­wise, it’s al­most al­ways em­ploy­ers who have set bound­aries for what em­ploy­ees have to do to get the job.”

Ed­u­cat­ing em­ploy­ers that aren’t tied to fed­eral con­straints might help, he said. For ex­am­ple, “If it’s some­thing like a desk job and the em­ployer has other em­ploy­ees us­ing medicine that has a phys­i­cal im­pact on them but still al­lows them to func­tion,” then ef­forts to con­vince that em­ployer to change pol­icy on med­i­cal mar­i­juana might pay off.

Ge­lay, Teno­rio and Paul Ar­men­tano, deputy direc­tor of the Wash­ing­ton, D.C.-based Na­tional Or­ga­ni­za­tion for the Re­form of Mar­i­juana Laws, all say states can and should do more to pro­tect the civil rights of med­i­cal mar­i­juana pa­tients when it comes to re­mov­ing bar­ri­ers to em­ploy­ment.

“Peo­ple should never have to choose be­tween their med­i­ca­tion and their em­ploy­ment,” Ar­men­tano said in an email.

Other states, he said, in­clud­ing Ari­zona, have laws that pro­hibit em­ploy­ers from dis­crim­i­nat­ing against work­ers on the ba­sis of their sta­tus as a med­i­cal mar­i­juana pa­tient, ar­gu­ing a pos­i­tive drug test in it­self does not in­di­cate im­pair­ment. How­ever, these states still ex­empt em­ploy­ers who are re­quired to fol­low fed­eral drug-test­ing guide­lines.

Ge­lay said there is hope for New Mex­i­cans caught in this sit­u­a­tion. A re­cent med­i­cal cannabis task force re­port sug­gested, among other mea­sures, the state pro­tect the civil rights of med­i­cal mar­i­juana users when it comes to em­ploy­ment, hous­ing and school­ing.

Gov.-elect Michelle Lu­jan Gr­isham’s tran­si­tion direc­tor, Do­minic Ga­bello, said in an email last week that she “will di­rect a le­gal re­view of the mat­ter and work with all stake­hold­ers – em­ploy­ers, law en­force­ment, health care providers and pa­tients – to­ward a so­lu­tion that ben­e­fits all par­ties and pro­tects pa­tients.”

The pos­si­bil­ity of re­form is good news for Teno­rio, who, af­ter work­ing for some months as a server in a brew­ery, just landed a job as a tech­ni­cian in a Santa Fe-based vi­sion care cen­ter that does not con­duct drug tests for em­ploy­ees.

He said his month­s­long search for a job left him de­pressed.

“I thought I was go­ing to end up work­ing in the fast-food busi­ness,” he said. “It kind of sucked. I felt I was in a Catch-22 sit­u­a­tion.

“Hav­ing a med­i­cal mar­i­juana li­cense shouldn’t shield you from other drug test­ing,” he said. “But I still think there should be an ex­cep­tion for med­i­cal mar­i­juana. A lot of us need it to func­tion.”

Un­der the fed­eral Con­trolled Sub­stances Act, cannabis is clas­si­fied as a Sched­ule I drug, the same cat­e­gory as heroin and LSD, all con­sid­ered highly ad­dic­tive and with­out med­i­cal value.

Gabriela Cam­pos/The New Mex­i­can

Colin Teno­rio pre­pares a bowl of med­i­cal mar­i­juana at the end of the day Fri­day. Since Fe­bru­ary, Teno­rio has used med­i­cal mar­i­juana for pain man­age­ment af­ter he was in­jured in a 2015 knife at­tack.

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