According to D.C. government human resources rules first established in 2016, most city employees are allowed to take part in the District’s medical marijuana program.
But some employees in the Department of Public Works say they were told otherwise, leading to confusion, distress, and hesitance to use medical marijuana to treat ailments due to fear over their job security.
“They were saying there was zero tolerance—so you would lose your job” if a drug test came back positive for marijuana, even if you were part of the medical marijuana program, said a DPW employee nicknamed Deuce, who has been with the agency for 20 years. He asked we not use his full name because he fears repercussions at work. “That’s kind of crazy. It scared me and a lot of my co-workers.”
The phrase “zero tolerance” does not appear in the section on medical marijuana in the city’s official human resources manual, which states: “The use of medical marijuana for a qualifying medical condition or to relieve side effects of qualifying medical treatment, is to be treated as any other form of prescription medication as it relates to the District government’s drug testing requirements,” as long as the employees present their medical marijuana card to drug testing officials.
The confusion at DPW began this past summer, when the agency announced it would consider more of its jobs “safety or protective sensitive positions,” meaning they could “reasonably cause potential harm if the employee was impaired,” said D.C. Human Resources Director Ventris Gibson in an emailed statement. (This is part of a larger effort that D.C. Human Resources began in 2015 to reclassify employees across the city government.) Those recategorized positions would be subject to drug testing and “employees in these positions will be subject to administrative action if they test positive for marijuana unless they have [a Department of Health] Medical Marijuana program card,” per Gibson.
While the official policy exempts employees who have medical marijuana cards, multiple DPW workers say that’s not how the change was presented to them by managers in their department.
“They stated openly, ‘we don’t care if you have a medical marijuana card, you will lose your job’” if the urine test comes back positive, said a DPW employee who works as a mechanic for the department on a temporary basis. “A blanket ‘no tolerance’ seemed kind of strange to me, so I started investigating,” he said, though he was frightened enough about repercussions to use the name “Mr. Wright” when following up about the policy with representatives from human resources and other departments. He asked that we use that name, fearing blowback for speaking to media.
Mr. Wright said his prescribed medication for chronic neck pain resulted in stomach pain, and emergency room doctors told him the prescribed medication was eating away at his stomach lining. “The medicine I’m taking is doing more damage than what it should be doing,” he said.
He’s been hoping that medical marijuana could help mange his chronic pain without the adverse side effects. But managers “were still saying ‘no tolerance,’ which was making me drag my foot,” Mr. Wright said. This February, though, he decided to join the medical marijuana program despite the ongoing confusion. He first spoke to DCist from his car, where he was en route to get his card. “Let the chips fall where they may,” he said.
Medical marijuana became available in D.C. in 2013, about 15 years after voters approved it in a referendum. (Blame congressional meddling for most of the delay.) Changes to the program since then have expanded the list of qualifying conditions to access the program and allowed for patients with prescriptions in other states to purchase medical marijuana at D.C. dispensaries. The program has 6,231 patients registered as of the end of January 2019, according to the D.C. Department of Health. The city does not track the number of employees who participate in the medical marijuana program, due to concerns over medical privacy.
In January, Mayor Muriel Bowser was in attendance when D.C. opened its first medical dispensary east of the river. “We can laugh and giggle about marijuana, right? But it’s big business, and big business means people can be employed,” she said in a speech at the ribbon cutting.
Since a growing number of states have legalized both medical and recreational marijuana in recent years, the public sector has had to figure out how those laws impact their employee drug policies. Last week, a Michigan appellate panel ruled that the state’s medical marijuana law did not protect a medical marijuana patient whose conditional offer of employment at the Lansing Board of Water and Light was rescinded when she tested positive in a THC screen—but that decision hinged on the fact that the patient was not yet an employee.
In D.C., the confusion about medical marijuana isn’t limited to the Department of Public Works. In November, At-large Councilmember David Grosso wrote to the Department of Corrections to clarify whether employees of that agency are permitted to use medical marijuana, saying he was “concerned that the Department may not be taking into account the nuance of employees, including those categorized as ‘high potential risk,’ who may be participating in the District of Columbia’s, or another state’s, medical marijuana program … If an employee, for example, is undergoing treatment for cancer and is prescribed medical marijuana by a doctor to help with the side effects of treatment, it seems unreasonable and inappropriate that the employee would be penalized, or even subject to termination, because of seeking such medical care.”
Department of Corrections Director Quincy Booth wrote back in January, explaining the DOC’s practices for drug testing employees, and noting that Initiative 71, the public referendum that made recreational marijuana legal in D.C., “has no impact on the District government’s current enforcement and application of employment related drug testing requirements.” In his letter, Booth did not explain how his agency handles employees who are prescribed medical marijuana.
But the DOC, just like DPW and other city agencies, falls under the District employee policy, which treats medical marijuana like any other prescription drug. Grosso told DCist that it’s a “very good policy,” but “various agencies haven’t been following it. They’re cutting themselves off of quality employees. It’s frustrating for people who thought their medical marijuana card wouldn’t hurt their opportunity to still work.” Grosso also contended that greater access to medical marijuana could combat D.C.’s opioid crisis: “It’s been shown through medical studies that access to medical marijuana does decrease the number of people who rely on opioids for treatment.”
Deuce, the 20-year DPW employee in the street and alley division, said that he looked up the policy on his own after “HR was telling us we couldn’t be a part of medical marijuana program … It’s like reefer madness all over again.” He said he’s had chronic back pain for nearly two decades. “I’ve done the muscle relaxers,” he said, listing different prescription pain medications. “Nothing helps me like cannabis helps me—that’s what led me to the medical program. When D.C. got on board, I jumped at it.”
That’s why he’s so frustrated with what he deems the “misconstrued information” coming from management at DPW. “You want to stop people from being on a medical program they need?” Deuce asked. “It’s a real weird situation right now, and it’s a tense situation.” In the fall, Deuce presented higher-ups with his medical marijuana card, which he has held since 2016. “After I presented my card, I kind of felt a whole lot better,” he said. “It’s in someone else’s hands now. I know I’m right for doing what I’m doing.”
Ever since then, though, he hasn’t been permitted to drive the street sweepers. “I got a call from HR that said I couldn’t drive any more” he said. “I still get paid, I come to work, but they literally don’t know what to do. They have me doing little tasks around the office. I’m not complaining, but it’s just crazy.”
According to an emailed statement from DPW Director Chris Geldart, “It would not be safe to have employees in safety-sensitive positions working under the influence of marijuana. This is true for a number of other prescribed medications as well. Employees in safety-sensitive positions who present medical marijuana cards and test positive for having marijuana in their systems will not be disciplined, but they will not be allowed to resume their normal duties. A reasonable effort will be made to move these employees into non-safety-sensitive positions, but there is no guarantee that such positions will be available.”
But Deuce maintains that he never arrives at work, nor would he drive any DPW vehicle, after medicating with marijuana. That’d be tough to prove—urine testing can pick up cannabinoids ingested two weeks prior or longer.
Since obtaining his medical marijuana card, Mr. Wright similarly said that “I will do my medication after work, but when I get up in the morning, I don’t medicate. That’s the biggest misconception or stigma. They believe that once you take marijuana, you are just under the influence of marijuana all the time.”