Ohio employers’ ability to fire medical marijuana users irks some legislators

 

We’re punishing the people that are going to be using the very substance we’re going to make legal,” Rep. David Leland, D-Columbus, said Tuesday before the vote, adding that he was unsure if he would end up voting for the bill (he did). Leland told his peers it’s up to the Senate to “cure this particular ill.

The Ohio House of Representatives on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved a medical marijuana bill and the next morning, a Quinnipiac University poll showed 9 in 10 Ohioans support marijuana as medicine.

Marijuana has momentum, and the House addressed some of the issues legislators have had with legalization, including whether medical marijuana could be smoked (no) and if it could be grown by sick patients (no)

But some House Democrats made clear their displeasure with a portion of the bill that would allow employers to maintain drug testing programs and to fire workers who fail, even if prescribed marijuana by a doctor. Workers wouldn’t be eligible for unemployment benefits, either.

It’s not an easily solvable problem.

“We’re punishing the people that are going to be using the very substance we’re going to make legal,” Rep. David Leland, D-Columbus, said Tuesday before the vote, adding that he was unsure if he would end up voting for the bill (he did). Leland told his peers it’s up to the Senate to “cure this particular ill.”

Rep. Teresa Fedor, D-Toledo, voted against the bill, and said the workplace aspect would become a bigger issue. She said she could not support the bill as written.

The legislation, House Bill 523, got its first hearing Wednesday morning at the Senate’s Government Oversight and Reform Committee. Sen. Troy Balderson of Zanesville, one of nine Republicans on the 12-member committee, said before the hearing that the Senate was in “tough terrain,” and would have to do more homework.

Business groups support continued drug testing because many companies don’t want employees working while under the influence. That makes sense to nearly everyone. The complicating issue lies with marijuana’s longevity in users’ bodies.

A sick patient might use legally prescribed marijuana on Saturday, be tested on Wednesday and fired by Friday, all without ever coming to work under the influence of marijuana.

While the Ohio Chamber of Commerce has so far not officially endorsed the bill, a group representing it and other local chambers testified that maintaining a company’s human resources policy, including drug screening, should be a core tenant of legalization. The group, the Ohio Metro Chambers of Commerce, also wants to make sure employees fired because of policy violations can’t get unemployment benefits.

Rep. Kirk Schuring, R-Canton, who has studied medical marijuana as part of a legislative committee, said Tuesday the part of the bill simply matches what’s already law that permits employers to fire workers over failed drug tests.

THC, the part of marijuana that employers test for, is traceable for longer than most drugs. Occasional users may fail a urine drug test after three or four days. But regular users can still test positive more than two weeks after going cold turkey, according to a study in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence. Other studies show positive tests even longer after users stopped using the drug, and failed drug test timelines can differ because of a variety of factors.

May 11, 2016

Tom Knox covers Ohio State University, public policy, energy and manufacturing.