Panel tackles medical marijuana in the workplace

March 08, 2004

Meghan Vogel , The Times-Standard

EUREKA -- What rules apply to medical marijuana in the workplace?

That was the topic of a recent panel discussion hosted by the Humboldt County Workplace Investment Board.

'There are a lot of gray areas when it comes to medical marijuana in the workplace,' said Jacqueline Debets, interim executive director of the Workplace Investment Board, a county commission made up of local leaders in business, education and economic development.

Frank Sanderson, regional manager of TOC Management Services, and Kurt Barthel, deputy labor commissioner for Humboldt and Del Norte counties, led the discussion on what policies employers should consider when it comes to medical marijuana.

From the discussion, the Workplace Investment Board drew up a list of questions to send to the Medical Marijuana Task Force set up by the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors.

'Quite a few questions were raised, especially in areas that will probably have to be decided in the courts because there's no clarity in the law to answer those questions,' said Jon Sapper, a Workplace Investment Board member and assistant superintendent of Humboldt County Schools.

One of the most pressing questions raised was what happens when federal law supersedes state law. The use of marijuana for medicinal purposes is not recognized by the federal government, yet medical marijuana is legal in California due to the passage of the Compassionate Use Act in 1996.

'One of the most gray areas we have is with the federal government, which doesn't recognize medical marijuana,' Debets said.

Among the many complications of medical marijuana in the workplace, Debets said, pertains to employers who accept federal funds. These employers must sign a contract with the federal government agreeing to a drug-free workplace, which again brings up the issue of the federal government not recognizing marijuana's medicinal purpose. Also, schools and colleges must be certified drug-free environments to receive any federal funding.

The doctors Debets spoke with said medical marijuana should be treated as any other prescription drug.

'We hope to alert and help educate local employers,' Debets said. 'For an employer to stay out of trouble they should use the policies in place for prescription drugs.'

Among the questions being sent to the Medical Marijuana Task Force is to look at how marijuana is different from a prescription drug, if at all. Other questions include what sort of personnel policies should be recommended to employers regarding medical marijuana and how should employers accommodate their medical marijuana employees. Another huge issue is what sort of liabilities employers face when employing medical marijuana users.

The panelists agreed some questions will ultimately have to be decided in the courts. For instance, what happens to a medical marijuana patient injured on the job because of the drug's use?

'There were some good questions raised,' Sapper said. 'It's a fascinating topic, and I'm looking forward to a dialogue with the task force.'

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