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Weeding Through the Issues

Effective March 30, 2021, medical marijuana was legalized in the State of New York "in certain circumstances". The issue though has already been contested in the public safety sector — in fact, in May 2021 a certified medical marijuana user and long-time NYS FF-EMT was fired when he tested positive for marijuana.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for qualified workers with disabilities. The act does not protect illegal drug use, though it does afford some protections for recovering addicts. Marijuana is an illegal drug under federal law, with no exceptions for medicinal use, so its use is not protected under the ADA guidelines. The FDA has approved several drugs that contain individual cannabinoids for specific illnesses such as childhood epilepsy, patients undergoing cancer chemotherapy, and some AIDS patients. Botanical use of marijuana, such as in smoking, is difficult to regulate as the levels of chemicals may differ between plants.

New York has asked employers to provide common-sense rules allowing the use of legitimate medical marijuana by employees; however, employers are permitted to make exceptions and deny use by employees in certain safety-sensitive or federally regulated positions at their discretion. Even the states that have laws requiring employers to allow an employee to use medical marijuana (outside of the workplace) insist that the employee doesn’t report to work under the influence or otherwise create a direct threat to others. (Direct threat determinations must be based on an individualized assessment of the individual's present ability to safely perform the essential functions of the job)

Cannabis use, in its various forms, can relieve pain, reduce anxiety, help regulate blood sugar, and lower cholesterol. However, studies have found some of the risks associated with marijuana or cannabis use may include altered sense of time and sensations, hallucinations, delusions, a fast heartbeat, and elevated blood pressure. According to Emilia Paluszek, a human biology and psychology specialist at the University of Albany, marijuana use can also cause decreased reactivity to dopamine which affects moods, motivation, and attention. Coordination and response time, short term memory, and the ability to learn may be impaired. Medical marijuana can only be prescribed in NYS by a certified doctor registered with the NYS Medical Marijuana Program. Medical marijuana prescribed in another state is not recognized in New York.

Traces of marijuana use can stay in the bloodstream for several days, even weeks in some forms. Even when used during off-work hours, the drug is still detectable in employer requested drug tests. New York State does not restrict the use of periodic drug testing except in cases of suspected discrimination. Federal law even mandates periodic drug testing in safety sensitive industries especially if the business operates under federal oversight. Until such time as the FDA legalizes marijuana use, the ADA will not protect its use as a drug disability medication, and it is the employer's right to fire an employee whose drug test is positive for marijuana use even if it is medically prescribed.

It is strongly recommended that every EMS agency have clear guidelines and policies regarding the use of marijuana by its EMS practitioners and other employees and ensure that all employees are made aware of such policies.

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