Medical marijuana comes with strings attached

April 18, 2010

Tom Roeder, Eileen Welsome and Maria St. Louis-Sanchez, Colorado Springs Gazette

Parts of Colorado's growing medical marijuana industry remain shrouded in smoke, including who can sell the marijuana and how it can be distributed. But much is clear.

Legally obtained marijuana can get users fired, jailed or turned down for foster parent jobs.

Restrictions on medical marijuana use abound, even as dispensaries sprout up in nearly every neighborhood in Colorado Springs and as the state processes 1,000 applications per day for legal marijuana use.

High at work? Experts say users can be fired, even if they use marijuana legally.

Stoned on the road? Police say users can pick up a DUI for driving under the influence of marijuana.

Seeking to help kids? El Paso County won't let users of medical marijuana house foster children, and it could be an issue for adoption.

Amendment 20, approved by voters in 2000, allows people with "debilitating medical conditions" to possess and use marijuana legally.

It doesn't require employers to tolerate marijuana in the workplace, though. And it allows cops to bust legal marijuana users who've had too much or used it in a manner that breaks other laws.

On the job

When medical marijuana users show up for work, their legal marijuana can quickly turn from painkiller to career killer.

"We see it all the time," said Anne Peterson, of Professional Compliance in Pueblo, one of the area's largest drug-screening firms.

Peterson said her company deals with a half-dozen people or more every week who contest their drug test findings by claiming they used marijuana legally for medical reasons.

"We cannot accept that as a viable excuse," Peterson said. "Most of the employees hear what they want to hear -- that this card is a get-out-of-jail-for-free card. But if they come up positive in the test, their medical marijuana card is not any good."

Federal contractors and interstate truck drivers are banned from marijuana use by federal law, which doesn't recognize medical marijuana.

Others are caught by drug-free-workplace policies that generally don't include provisions for medical marijuana. So employees who use it for any reason get the same treatment as those who smoke crack cocaine.

"If you have a no-tolerance policy, you can't make exceptions," said Liz Aragon, who leads the Colorado Springs Society for Human Resource Management.

Workers can't even argue that their marijuana use is protected by the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, because the federal government doesn't recognize medical marijuana.

"Just because they have a card, it doesn’t make it legal with work-related policies," Aragon said. "If there is a no-tolerance drug policy, there is a no-tolerance drug policy."

Kris Hermes, of the California-based marijuana-advocacy group Americans for Safe Access, said drug-free policies could cost thousands of medical marijuana users their livelihood.

"The law was never designed to prevent patients from being productive members of society," he said.

Workplace marijuana use was addressed recently in California, where a court shot down arguments from a fired worker who legally used medical marijuana and found in favor of the employer.

On the streets

Amendment 20 didn’t legalize marijuana outright. Nor did it give high users a free pass to drive. And it included strict limits on how much marijuana patients can possess.

But a medical marijuana registry card does give users some slack with police.

"Our voters voted for medical marijuana, but in 2006 they rejected legalizing marijuana," Fourth Judicial District Attorney Dan May said. "I'm hoping the Legislature listens to the voters and will provide medical marijuana for those who medically need it, but won't legalize marijuana."

Under state law, medical marijuana use is ruled out as a criminal defense for anything other than possession or consumption of marijuana.

When a cop pulls a driver over and gets a whiff of the distinctive smoke, trouble doesn’t end with a registry card. Marijuana, and any drug that can impair a driver, can lead to a DUI, just like alcohol.

Still, police have mellowed on marijuana possession. Colorado Springs police say they show discretion with medical marijuana users and recently quit seizing marijuana grown for medical uses.

"That's a big cultural shift for law enforcement. One time, you're looking at something that's illegal, and all of a sudden it's legal," said Lt. Al Harmon of the Police Department's drug unit. "That takes some getting used to."

Right now, the drug unit focuses on big marijuana operations, not individuals with a medical marijuana card.

Police go after dispensaries that clearly have more plants than they are supposed to.

Harmon said there were 110 known dispensaries or medical-marijuana-growing operations in the city in March -- more than double the number of Starbucks coffee shops in El Paso County.

May said those dispensaries have been a target for robbery. His office is taking a close look at the businesses.

"If you are allowed six plants and you have seven, we're working with the patient rather than bringing charges," he said. "But if you have 100 plants and you're allowed six, you betcha that's a crime."

A state appellate court recently ruled that people growing medical marijuana must be caregivers, a term that police interpret to mean a business that provides more than just marijuana.

"If you are just selling marijuana, that is illegal even under this amendment," May said. "We are enforcing that."

Social services

Medical marijuana hasn't posed problems for officials with El Paso County's Department of Human Services, but they're ready if it comes up.

Maija Schiedel, administrator for DHS Youth and Family Services, said policies on medical marijuana are evolving.

The department has decided not to place foster children in homes where medical marijuana is used.

"We have a lot of vulnerable children. Many of them have their own issues around drug and alcohol use," she said. "We don't think it's a good idea to expose kids further."

Asked if the department would consider placing children in foster homes or group homes where there were grow operations or dispensaries, she responded "absolutely not."

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