Ellen Komp: Why the Medical Marijuana Industry Should Work For Employment Rights

By Ellen Komp

Californians, and the medical marijuana industry, have a chance to make an important stride for human rights in the coming weeks. Senate Bill 129 – introduced by Sen. Mark Leno – would grant needed employment rights to medical marijuana users, and will be voted on as soon as Jan. 19 in Sacramento.

Many people are unaware that the California Supreme Court has ruled that employers may fire anyone who fails a drug test, even registered patients using medical marijuana legally. Sadly, a lot of patients find this out only after they’ve lost their jobs.

Legislative action is the only way we can change the climate.

The medical marijuana industry should care about SB129 for many reasons. First, the current situation is an injustice against patients who are collective members, and those who would be if they had the choice. It certainly hampers an industry when a large segment of society (anyone with a job) can’t participate.

When someone loses their job over a medical marijuana drug test, they often try to find work within the medical marijuana industry, risking federal prosecution, all because they find marijuana helpful for their medical condition.

Finally, by discriminating against marijuana users, our workforce is missing out on some of its most creative participants, and the whole country suffers from this. Canadian courts have found drug testing unconstitutional. And it’s widely known that Silicon Valley doesn’t drug test, because it would then lose some of its top recruits. In fact, what’s become the nation’s only growth industry (aside from medical marijuana) was started by two known pot smokers: Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.

In addition, a new study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that the mental function and memory of nearly 9,000 British men at age 50 was the same or higher among those who admitted to using marijuana or other illicit drugs moderately at the age of 42.

California NORML regularly receives calls from frantic workers in danger of job loss. In recent weeks we have heard from a manager at an electronics store, a bottler at a beer factory and others who have been unfairly deemed unfit for work because they use marijuana medicinally.

Ironically, many tell us it’s the marijuana that enables them to be productive workers, by allowing them to manage their pain without opiates, helping them sleep or staving off migraine headaches. But unless they can stomach pharmaceutical medications for their ailments, they’re out of luck when it comes to the job market.

This situation persists despite the fact that it has been shown in study after study that urine testing programs do not improve workplace safety. Alternatives like impairment testing are starting to gain ground, as trucking companies and others are looking for better and more immediate ways to reduce their accident rate. One company even markets their Alertometer as an iPhone app.

Under SB129, employers would retain the right to take action against employees who were impaired on the job. Those in safety-sensitive positions and certain health-care workers could still be drug tested. And contrary to what opponents like the California Chamber of Commerce like to state, it won’t interfere with federal drug-testing mandates.

Recent polling shows that 65% of California voters favor employment rights for medical marijuana users. We are only three votes away from passing SB129 in the state senate, and are targeting pro-business Democrats Correa, Calderon, Rubio, Vargas, Negrete-McLeod and Roderick Wright, all in Southern California or the Central Valley.

CalNORML has a 4-page info/activist packet on SB129 for collectives to activate their memberships. For more information, check out http://www.canorml.org/drugtesting, and be sure to email your state senator.

I know that collectives everywhere are fighting for their very existence right now, but if we could activate the estimated 1 million collective members in California as a political force, we could all benefit. Fighting for SB129 will show that we are not just an industry, we are a movement.

Ellen Komp is deputy director of California NORML, a non-profit membership organization dedicated to reforming the state’s marijuana laws. You can reach her at ellen@canorml.org.