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Marion School Administrator Caught In Dispute Between Federal, State Marijuana Policy

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Christopher Cann
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Former Belleview High School Dean of Students Michael Hickman is caught in a legal dispute over state and federal policy regarding medical marijuana rights for employers and employees.

It’s an incident that has become more common in recent years, policy experts say.

The ongoing battle questions the lawfulness of Hickman’s termination from Belleview High School after testing positive for cannabinoids in December. Following an August hearing, State Administrative Law Judge Van Wyk in early September recommended Hickman’s firing, returning the final decision to the Marion County School Board.

Board members will determine in their Thursday hearing whether to take the judge’s recommendation to terminate Hickman.

Hickman’s defense is that his marijuana was legally prescribed to treat PTSD, but the school board affirms its right to enforce its drug-free workplace policy. This policy also notes that when an employee begins taking a prescribed controlled substance, he or she must notify a supervisor — Hickman did not, according to the administrative hearing brief.

Furthermore, since Belleview High School receives federal funds, the school is liable to lose them if it is not in accordance with federal law, district spokesperson Kevin Christian said.

“When you don’t abide by federal law, and they provide funding, you’re subject to lose that funding,” Christian said. “But has that ever happened in a case like this? I don’t know.”

While marijuana remains a Schedule 1 drug federally — which is defined by the DEA as a drug with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse — there will be a gap between state and federal policy. The only solution to close this gap is legislation, which seeks to protect employees from employers who wish to fire them for taking medicinal marijuana.

Ten states including Illinois, New York and Oklahoma have protection for medical marijuana patient employment under state law.

Legal Counsel for the Drug Policy Alliance Tamar Todd suggested the reason Florida’s medical marijuana law does not feature language that protects employees is because it was passed through a ballot initiative and not a legislative process. She said bills passed through a ballot initiative tend to be less detailed, which in Florida’s case, leaves people unprotected.

“There are some really tragic cases, where people need it to treat pain and also are really good employees and deserving of employment,” she said. “I think allowing for the discipline of employees is not logical, I mean it’s allowed, but I think it’s not a logical policy for an employer to have.”

Florida State Sen. Lori Berman, D-Boynton Beach, introduced the Medical Marijuana Protection Act for the 2020 legislative session. It died in the Florida House in March. The bill would have prohibited employers from firing employees who are legally prescribed medical marijuana.

Still, it was unclear whether that bill would have protected Hickman because he was an employee of a public high school dependent on federal funding.

The bill did not protect employees working in safety-sensitive jobs or those who are employed by an employer that may lose federal funding.

“This section does not: require an employer to commit any act that would cause the employer to violate federal law or that would result in the loss of a federal contract or federal funding,” it stated.

Todd also discussed similarities between the 2001 California court case, Ross v. RagingWire Telecommunications, Inc., and Hickman’s case. Ross v. RagingWire began when an Air Force veteran — who was prescribed medical marijuana to treat muscle spasms he obtained in the military — was fired from RagingWire Telecommunications.

Despite his satisfactory job performance, the California Supreme Court chose to sustain the trial court’s decision, and Ross was fired.

Similarly, an elementary school teacher in Cocoa was fired in 2019 after testing positive for cannabinoids.

Hickman’s case began in November. After injuring his shoulder breaking up a fight between two students, he was asked to take a routine drug test. He failed, testing positive for cannabinoids. When the drug test result came back to administrators, Hickman was fired in January.

He appealed the decision, and was placed on unpaid leave. The case then went to an administrative law judge, who sends recommendations to the board before they make the final decision. In early September Judge Van Wyk recommended Hickman’s termination.

Hickman was prescribed medical marijuana in 2018 to treat PTSD and pain stemming from injuries he received while serving in the U.S. Marines in Desert Storm in 1991, according to information presented during the administrative hearing.

Hickman began his employment by the Marion County School Board in 2010 as a physical education coach at Horizon Academy, before being promoted to the dean. He transferred to Shores Elementary where he served as a dean before eventually transferring to Belleview until he was placed on unpaid administrative leave on Jan. 13, 2020.

Hickman told the Ocala Star-Banner that he was devastated when he learned former Superintendent of Schools Heidi Maier recommended his firing. He said he recently spent $10,000 on a master’s degree to one day become a principal.

Neither Hickman nor his lawyer responded to over five calls or emails over the course of two weeks seeking further comment for this story.

Alyson Aldana, a former Belleview High School teacher, wrote in an email that she was saddened and frustrated when Hickman’s case broke earlier this year.

“He was a very professional, friendly man,” she wrote. “He seemed to love his job and loved Belleview. He was very ‘by the book’ and wanted the kids to have a fair, safe experience when dealing with him.”

Aldana wrote that Hickman used the prescription drug for treatment, not recreation, and therefore should have the same freedoms as teachers prescribed any other drug. She hopes his case will spotlight employer discrimination against medical marijuana users.

“Every other pharmaceutical drug and prescription is allowed to be taken before your job begins or even during your work hours on campus,” she wrote. “I don’t see how Hickman’s prescription is any different.”

As Todd said, if there is no legislation protecting employees who require medical marijuana, people will continue to get caught in the gap between federal and state policy — often destroying their professional lives.

Regardless of the school board’s decision this week, the immediate future remains bleak for employees working for federally-funded institutions if they are prescribed medical marijuana in Florida.