Bill would allow medical-marijuana users to be fired for failing drug tests

February 07, 2007

Aaron Clark, Associated Press

Employees who legally use marijuana under Oregon's voter-passed medical-cannabis laws could be fired for flunking a drug test under a proposed Senate bill under committee consideration Wednesday.

Backers say the law would provide clarity on an issue surfacing in the workplace with increasing frequency. The bill would not just allow employers to remove workers if they are found to be impaired or consuming marijuana on the job but if they test positive for using the substance outside of the workplace.

Opponents of the bill say it unfairly punishes medical-marijuana users working in Oregon. They say that workers can have traces of the drug in their system a month after use and that impairment also can come from a host of other doctor-prescribed and over-the-counter medications.

Lawmakers came down on both sides of the issue.

"I spent 20 years as a professional, commercial helicopter pilot," said Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, who testified in support of the bill. "It is a zero-tolerance-for-drugs industry ... to assure a safe operation in the kind of very dangerous work that we were doing."

Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, who testified before the committee, said that employers should look for obvious signs of impairment, rather than drug tests, to pinpoint whether an employee's ability to carry out their job is affected.

J.L. Wilson, the Oregon director of the National Federation of Independent Business, said the law was critical for employers to avoid lawsuits.

"There's a whole host of plaintiff's attorneys looking for business, and this is another avenue for them if you have impaired workers," Wilson said.

Others said the bill would fail to filter out employees who might be impaired by other doctor-prescribed or over-the-counter drugs, such as those that contain codeine, amphetamines or morphine.

"This bill doesn't make us any safer," said Andrea Meyer of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon. "It presumes that everyone who is using medical marijuana is impaired while at the same time individuals using other medications are not."

Machinist Lorenzo Gonzales, 43, said he was fired last month from his job with Forest Grove-based Merix after traces of cannabis showed up in his mandatory drug test. The registered medical-marijuana user said that he takes cannabis for chronic pain because of several motorcycle crashes but that he only used the drug at night and that it never impaired his ability in the workplace.

"The job I did was extremely complex, and there's no way I could use my medication and think straight," Gonzales said.

Whether the high-tech manufacturing company had the authority to fire Gonzales, one of Oregon's 12,000 registered medical-marijuana users, is a tricky question.

The bill comes more than a year after the Oregon Supreme Court ruled against millwright Robert Washburn, a medical-marijuana user who was fired from his job at a Columbia Forest Products plant after urine tests showed traces of the drug.

"We all believed we were talking about folks in the last three to six months of their life," Jessica Adamson, the government-affairs manager at Oregon's branch of Associated General Contractors, said of the voter-approved medical-marijuana law. "Not the kind of folks who would get it for back pain and show up on a construction site."


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