Medical Marijuana Legislation Stalls As Public Employees Are Fired For Legal Use
A measure to protect Florida public employees who use medical marijuana stalled this legislative session, leaving a disconnect between restrictive federal laws and permissive local laws.
The first time Allison Enright, a Brevard County teacher, fell at work, doctors prescribed her opioids to deal with the pain.
During the year that followed her fall, she saw her body start to deteriorate. When the prescription medicines and physical therapy didn’t work, a workers' compensation doctor recommended she use medical marijuana to avoid using a wheelchair.
She describes the drug as her miracle.
The second time the Space Coast Junior and Senior High teacher fell at work – a student pushed her in the hallway during the pandemic – she disclosed under her workers’ compensation plan that she used medical cannabis for pain management.
A 3-2 vote by the Brevard County School Board fired her after a short administrative leave. She had been teaching and working in schools for more than 30 years.
“I don’t know that I ever would have tried medical marijuana had I realized this was the consequence.”
Legislation to protect Florida public employees like Enright has stalled this session, leaving a disconnect between restrictive federal laws and permissive local laws. Democratic representatives proposed House Bill 335 to prohibit employers from taking action against qualified medical marijuana patients, was referred to four subcommittees in February and hasn’t been heard since.
Under current laws, agencies that receive federal funding, such as school systems, default to national laws that don’t allow medical marijuana use.
Enright isn’t alone in her termination. In March, the city of West Palm Beach fired its deputy chief of information technology after testing positive for marijuana during a spot test. In September 2020, a high school administrator in Marion County was fired after a failed drug test.
Both used marijuana for medical purposes. Neither said they were high on the job.
Employees taking a drug test have 24-48 hours to provide a valid explanation for why opioids are in their system. This is not the case for marijuana because it is nationally considered a Schedule 1 drug, defined as having “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” Other Schedule 1 drugs include heroin, LSD, ecstasy and peyote.
Rep. Nicholas Duran, D-Miami, proposed the bill to protect patients who he described as within their constitutional right to ingest medical cannabis, as decided by 71% of Florida voters in a 2016 constitutional amendment.
“This bill really just provides the kind of protections that show and recognize that we do have medical marijuana laws in the state of Florida,” Duran said. “We treat it as medicine, and we need to recognize that.”
The first bill that Gov. Ron DeSantis’ signed into law in 2019 allowed smokable medical marijuana, but the Legislature has not followed with further expansions.
Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Palm Beach, sponsored similar legislation in the 2020 session. She narrowed the scope from all employees to public employees when proposing Senate Bill 692 this year, hoping to provide better guidelines for both employees and employers. The bill died in its first committee.
“There is a terrible history of trying to pass bills like this which is why medical marijuana is only allowed because of the citizens initiative,” she said.
THC, the chemical in marijuana responsible for the high feeling, was a highly contested topic during this legislative session. Rep. Spencer Roach, R-North Fort Myers, filed a bill to cap the amount of THC found in each marijuana flower.
“I’m not trying to take people’s medicine away,” he said.
The bill has since died following DeSantis’ statement that he was not endorsing such limits, but it is one of the few focused on the drug that gained traction.
“I think that we've highlighted some things that maybe [the Department of Agriculture] should work on, or maybe a future legislature will see this bill, and another form at some point,” Roach said of the bill.
Florida’s medical marijuana law says that the use by a qualifying patient “is not subject to criminal or civil liabilities or sanctions.” However, Michael Minardi, a Tampa attorney who specializes in cannabis crimes, sees job loss as a sanction.
“If they’re going to treat this like a prescription, then it should be treated like a prescription in all aspects of it,” he said.
Minardi cited a recent case in Connecticut as an example of this challenge. The Connecticut employee, a city firefighter, tested positive for marijuana – for which he had a permit – on a random drug test. He challenged it on the grounds of the Americans with Disabilities Act and state medical marijuana laws, but the courts defaulted to federal regulations.
Josephine Cannella-Krehl of Tallahassee, a licensed clinical social worker, believes that being fired on this premise is medical discrimination. Prior to the 2016 legalization, she worked in hospice settings when she found out that her patients were secretly using it and reaping its benefits, but were afraid to tell their doctors.
She now runs MMJ Knowledge, where she counsels patients navigating Florida’s medical cannabis program.
“At the heart of it for me is to protect our people from prohibition,” she said.
While legislators and activists will keep pushing for this in future sessions, many were concerned a majority-Republican legislature will not expand protections.
“We can’t discriminate against people for other types of medications that they’re taking or other disabilities that they have, so why should marijuana be treated any differently?” said Rep. Michael Grieco, D-North Bay Village, a co-sponsor of the House bill.
Taking away punishment for medical marijuana use is just the start of where marijuana legislation should head, said Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando. Advocates hope to legalize recreational use, as recently passed by four states in two months including New York.
“I just stand completely against the criminalization of marijuana,” Eskamani said. “I think that we’ve seen for generations a hard-on crime mentality with marijuana that has locked up more Black and brown people even though the majority of users of marijuana today are white folks.”
This limiting mentality will continue to affect those who follow state laws, such as Brevard County teacher Enright. Vanessa Skipper, the vice president of the Brevard Federation of Teachers, says the first step is to elect people at a state and federal level who will follow through with what constituents have already decided.
Skipper cited students being allowed to ingest medical cannabis as a reason for this to extend to teachers.
“Change happens because an entity or person decides, hey, we are going to be the first to do this, we know this is the right thing to do,” Skipper said.
Jodi James, executive director of advocacy group Florida Cannabis Action Network, discovered marijuana as a medicine to get off of narcotics after a serious injury. She has worked with legislators including the sponsors of this year’s bills for the past decade to advance cannabis policy.
“There’s very few places in the modern world where you can witness miracles, but you can do that in the medical marijuana movement,” James said.
This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. These reporters can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.