Employers face issue of medical marijuana

October 25, 2005

Alex Paul, Albany Democrat-Herald

The number of Oregonians carrying a medical marijuana card is growing each year and more than ever, employers are finding themselves walking a fine line between their companies’ drug use policies and Oregon law.

Oregon employers and medical marijuana card holders await a November Court of Appeals decision about whether companies must accommodate employees with marijuana in their systems. The decision stems from a lawsuit brought by a former employee of Columbia Forest Products in Klamath Falls.

The employee had obtained a medical marijuana card in 1999 and was later fired after a urine test indicated the presence of THC, the active chemical in marijuana. The lawsuit contends a positive drug test based on a urine sample doesn’t prove the employee used or had marijuana at the workplace. A blood test is a more accurate measuring tool. Another factor being considered is what constitutes “reasonable accommodations.”

On Nov. 15, mid-valley employers can learn more about the issue during a free workshop, Medical Marijuana in the Workplace, to be held from 9 to 11:30 a.m. at the Phoenix Inn, 3410 Spicer Road S.E.

“This has been building for the last couple years,” said Jerry Gjesvold, employer services manager for Eugene-based Serenity Lane Treatment Center, and a workshop speaker. “The number of medical marijuana cards in Oregon is now up to more than 11,000. In the past, it was mostly people who weren’t working, or were working on a limited basis. That’s changing every day.”

At least 20 employers with whom Gjesvold works have had employees test positive for marijuana and then presented a medical marijuana card.

“Without a written policy, employers can’t just fire them,” Gjesvold said. “Employees have an obligation to notify their employers about this. Perhaps, the employer can provide someone who has a card with a job that doesn’t put employees, or the employer, at risk.”

“This is not a federal issue, it’s a state issue,” Gjesvold said. “There is no known science-based information on the affect of THC ... when it’s in a person’s urine. An employer has to be able to prove impairment on the part of the employee and that’s not easy.”

Gjesvold said he is encouraging employers at least to put some plan of action into their employee handbook. If there is nothing written down, benefit of the doubt will almost certainly lean toward the employee, Gjesvold said.

“When this law was first considered, no one expected more than 11,000 cards to be issued,” Gjesvold said.

Workshop speakers in addition to Gjesvold will be Paula Barran, an attorney and fellow in the College of Labor and Employment Lawyers, who will address how legal issues affect company substance-abuse policies; and Rick Howell, Columbia Forest Products, director of organizational development and human resources, who will talk about the Portland-based company’s experience with medical marijuana in the workplace.

The workshop is sponsored by WorkSource Oregon, the Region 4 Workforce Investment Board and Workdrugfree. To register, call 758-2642, or email sisom@csc.gen.or.us.

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