RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)-On July 1, Virginians ages 21 and older can legally possess small amounts of marijuana but you can still lose your job for using it recreationally depending on your employer’s drug policy.
While new employment protections for certain medical cannabis users are taking effect this week, some fear they are too vague to keep people out of court. Still, advocates hope the policy shift will build momentum towards more sweeping protections.
Joe Mirabile, vice chair of the Virginia Professional Firefighters Association‘s legislative committee, said products like CBD appeal to many of their members dealing with PTSD, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, joint pain and irregular sleep.
“A lot of our members struggle and right now they are self-medicating with alcohol. We have these natural products that are now safe and regulated that we could use but policies aren’t keeping up with the state code,” Mirabile said.
Mirabile said decades of no tolerance policies at fire departments have kept medical cannabis of all kinds off limits.
“Personally, I would love to try those products but I’ve held off because I don’t want to risk my job,” he said.
A new law taking effect July 1 will not ban drug screening during the hiring process but it will prohibit an employer from discharging, disciplining or discriminating against an employee if they show a valid, written medical certification from a doctor, according to bill sponsor Del. Dan Helmer (D-Fairfax).
“If they are taking legally prescribed medicine from their clinician then it does protect them so long as they are not impaired, the same as any other medicine,” Helmer said in an interview.
Mirabile said the policy shift could be a game changer but concerns remain. He said a workgroup is trying to clarify enforcement policies before firefighters start using medical cannabis.
“There is gray area in there. There are loopholes,” Mirabile said. “My message to our members has been, ‘yeah you’ll probably win a lawsuit and get your job back…but do you really want to spend two years in court trying to do that?’ So why don’t we get ahead of this and put policies in place to protect you.”
8News Legal Analyst Russ Stone said the bill allows employers to take adverse action against staff members who use or possess any form of cannabis at work.
Stone said the problem is the bill doesn’t clearly define standards for impairment.
“It means they still need to be careful in their behavior at work because there could be a dispute between them and their employer as to whether they were impaired or not, which would be decided in court,” Stone said. “In Virginia, employers have a wide degree of discretion when hiring and firing people.”
That issue is compounded by the fact that there is no breathalyzer-like tool for detecting marijuana intoxication in real time.
“One of the main challenges around this marijuana policy and others as a whole is that we don’t have a reliable drug test to determine if somebody is actually high,” Helmer said.
While the bill specifies that these employment protections are for “medical cannabis oil,” Stone pointed out that a urine screening would not be able to differentiate between that and leafy marijuana.
It’s legal headaches like this that prompted Republican Del. Tony Wilt (R-Harrisonburg) to vote against the bill, despite his support for medical cannabis.
“I still think zero tolerance is the best policy,” Wilt said. “Even though the bill presumes to have protections for businesses, to me, there’s enough loopholes there that could potentially hamstring the employer.”
In part due to federal marijuana prohibition, employers involved in federal contracts or the defense industrial base sector are exempt from the bill.
Still, Wilt doesn’t think the state should be mandating drug screening policies for any business.
Meanwhile, Virginia NORML Executive Director Jenn Michelle Pedini wants to see the General Assembly go even further and expand protections to all adult consumers.
“We are seeing more and more states enact legislation to prohibit drug screening for cannabis use post legalization and we definitely would like to see that happen in Virginia as well,” Pedini said.