Businesses face ‘gray area’ in marijuana law

November 16, 2005

Alex Paul, Corvalis Gazette-Times

When Oregonians approved the medical marijuana act in 1998, few people believed that less than a decade later, nearly 12,000 people would be allowed to legally grow and use the drug that is still considered illegal by the federal government.

While many people see the use of medical marijuana in terms of black and white, 91 representatives of mid-valley businesses were told Tuesday there exists “lots of gray area.”

The free workshop was sponsored by Worksource Oregon and the Workdrugfree program of the Oregon Nurses Foundation. Speakers included Jerry Gjesvold, employer services manager at Serenity Lane Treatment Centers; Rick Howell, director of organizational development and human resources for Columbia Forest Products; and Paula Barran, an attorney and partner at the law firm Barran Liebman LLP.

Gjesvold said that all mood altering drugs have a primary effect, what it does; and a secondary effect, its risks.

“When there were only a couple hundred people with medical marijuana cards, most weren’t working and it wasn’t such a problem,” Gjesvold said. “Now, with 12,000 card holders, that’s not the case.”

Gjesvold said there are several problems associated with marijuana use such as social acceptance, it’s usually smoked, which is unhealthy, and there are no dosage levels since the drug is self-administered.

Marijuana’s active ingredient, THC, is fat-soluble, Gjesvold said, adding that the human brain is composed of fatty tissue.

“Another big issue is how can an employer measure someone’s impairment?” Gjesvold said. “How can the employer determine if that person is fit for duty and still ensure the safety of other employees.”

There is little research that details how long after using marijuana a person remains impaired, but some suggest it is up to three hours.

Gjesvold admitted employers should not be concerned with just marijuana when it comes to an employee being deemed fit for duty. Workers may also be impaired from the effects of cold medications, caffeine or alcohol.

The number of people in Oregon who have applied for a medical marijuana card is so large that the state has reduced the application fee from $150 to $50 because “the state shouldn’t be in the drug trafficking business,” Gjesvold said. The program once generated $1 million for the state’s General Fund.

Gjesvold said it isn’t hard to get a medical marijuana card: More than 2,000 doctors have written prescriptions for their patients.

Howell, of Columbia Forest Products, recounted his company’s test-case recently heard before the Oregon Supreme Court.

The process started in 1998, when an employee slipped on ice and injured his shoulder and neck. The employee reportedly began using marijuana along with prescribed pain medication after the accident. He tested positive when a drug test was administered seven months later, but now he had a medical marijuana card.

The company paid for a drug treatment program, which the man completed, but he again tested positive for drugs in October 2000, was put on 16 weeks of leave and failed his fourth drug test in March 2001.

“Now, we’re waiting four to six months for the Supreme Court ruling,” Howell said.

Howell said his company believes the law was created to “help those who are really ill.” He believes there are alternatives for many card holders, is concerned that impairment can’t be calculated and that doses aren’t measured.

“We just want to treat marijuana the same as any other drug,” Howell said.

Attorney Barran said the issue actually revolves around the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires employers and government agencies to make reasonable accommodations.

“There’s a lot about marijuana we don’t know,” Barran said. “But, there’s nothing in Oregon law that requires employers to accommodate the use of medical marijuana in their workplace.”

The law, however, doesn’t address the issue of an employee with a medical card using marijuana off-premises and then reporting for work.

Registered Nurse Ed Glick was among a dozen people who protested outside the Phoenix Inn during and after the workshop.

“It was slightly to the right,” said Glick, who sat through the program. “It was subtly construed to be open-minded, but there was a lot of manipulating of data that I’ve hard over and over.”

Protester Trista Okel of Salem said she uses medical marijuana for fibromyalgia. She’s smoked marijuana for 13 years and has had a medical card for 20 months.

“If I went looking for work, it would be difficult for me to find a job,” Okel said. “I’m not willing to lie about it.“

Okel said she uses a marijuana vaporizer that releases the oils and THC without creating smoke. “I vaporize every day,” Okel said. “I did it before I came down here today. Do I appear impaired to you?”

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