New Utah marijuana bill clarifies that private employers don’t need to allow its use
Randy Gleave, general manager at Tryke Companies Utah in Tooele, talks about the marijuana plants at the company’s medical cannabis cultivation facility in Tooele on Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020. Lawmakers are discussing some changers to the state’s medical cannabis laws. Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Proposed changes to Utah’s medical marijuana law would clarify that private employers are not required to accommodate the use of cannabis products, nor are they barred from having policies restricting it.
And some medical marijuana advocates — citing the importance of Utah allowing businesses to run the way they choose — say they’re OK with it, while others question why the plant will be treated differently than any prescribed medication.
“Personally, certainly, I would be concerned if any company is taking any adverse action against a patient using their medicine, but our goal is to see that changed just through education and awareness rather than forcing them to change through the law,” said Connor Boyack, president of Libertas Institute, which worked on medical marijuana ballot initiative Proposition 2 and the compromise bill that replaced it.
“When we did the negotiations over Prop. 2, and even in Prop. 2 itself, we never sought to compel private businesses to allow the use of cannabis by their employees. As a free-market organization ourselves, we wouldn’t want the government to coerce companies in that way, and so we thought it proper to keep the policy that way,” Boyack said.
SB121 sponsor Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, also said the original bill didn’t require private employers to accommodate medical marijuana use, but that wasn’t clear enough in the law’s language. He said the exemption hasn’t seen pushback from advocates, but private employers had reached out to ensure it is clarified.
SB121, which is scheduled to be heard by the Senate Health and Human Services Committee at 8 a.m. Tuesday, does require government employers to allow their employees to use cannabis. Under the law, public employees can’t face ramifications for medical marijuana use unless they are impaired at work.
Christine Stenquist, president of Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education, or TRUCE, said her group “absolutely opposes” the bill not requiring private employers to allow use.
“What other medication or medical treatment is subject to employers’ scrutiny?” she asked in a statement to the Deseret News, explaining that Utah officials are ensuring cannabis is managed as a medication.
“It’s entirely inappropriate for an employer to impose their opinion on an employee’s medical treatment,” Stenquist said. She hopes that as the program rolls out the culture will move toward “acceptance instead of resistance.”
Desiree Hennessy, executive director of Utah Patients Coalition, said she hopes private employers will “follow suit” with what public employers are already required to do in letting employees use medical marijuana. But Hennessy agreed that Utah doesn’t want to “step on the toes of private employers.”
“We tried to honor that in this,” she said.
As an advocate for medical cannabis, Hennessy explained that she would like employers to be required to let their employees use medical marijuana, but she doesn’t understand what private employers each face.
“The best we can do is educate and advocate,” Hennessy said. Her group is working to help people understand testing, as well as how cannabis and the cannabis metabolite works.
The coalition has worked with employers who don’t allow medical marijuana, sometimes talking to those employers or giving the patient information to pass along that solves the issue, Hennessy said. But 50% of time, employers are still “absolutely not” OK with their employees having THC in their systems.
Hennessy believes the issue will work itself out as private employers see how state employers handle it. Even so, there will always be employers who say “absolutely not,” which she called unfortunate.
“It’s still (private employers’) business,” however, and Utah wants to honor that, according to Hennessy.
Boyack expressed optimism that most patients won’t be impacted. Few companies require regular drug testing, he said, other than those where employees operate vehicles and it becomes a safety issue.
“We think that the cultural awareness is definitely shifting,” he said.
Doctor caps, marijuana packaging
Boyack and Hennessy both praised other aspects of SB121.
Among larger tweaks, it would remove a requirement that raw marijuana flower be packaged in blister packs, allowing raw flower be sold in other sealed containers with expiration dates listed.
The bill would also exempt medical marijuana users from a prohibition on carrying a dangerous weapon, and raise the number of patients to whom a program-approved physician can recommend cannabis from 300 to 600. It also changes dosing “parameters” to dosing “guidelines” to allow doctors more flexibility in how they prescribe the medicine.
While Stenquist said her advocacy group sees some positive steps forward in the new bill, it still has concerns. Those concerns include having any caps on the number of patients doctors can recommend marijuana to, and doctors’ role of signing patients up for the medical marijuana program while marijuana is still illegal under federal law.
“Utah law comes much closer to asking doctors to essentially prescribe a particular course of cannabis treatment — including cannabis types and amounts — than the laws in nearly any other state that we know of,” Stenquist said.
Making doctors responsible for enrolling patients into the cannabis program could create legal troubles for doctors, Stenquist said.
“Whereas in California, doctors only sign a simple statement saying that they believe their patients could benefit from medical cannabis. That statement is then taken to an organization which vets that the doctor in fact made the statement and that the doctor is in good standing, and then a third organization actually enrolls the patients,” Stenquist said.
She also expressed concern that those people who own firearms while using marijuana will also be breaking federal law, and with the expiration dates that will be ascribed to the raw cannabis flower.
Stenquist said those legal expiration dates would create “an entirely new victimless crime based on ‘expiring medical cannabis bottles.’ This carries the whole dubious proposition of . having the ‘expired medicine’ on a patient’s person out of their home will result in their having committed a violation.”
But Stenquist said the group believes progress will be made over the coming years, and others agree the steps are positive.
“We think a lot of these changes continue to improve upon the medical cannabis program and provide patients a number of improved access opportunities and protections so that they can use this medicine. The goal is to get this bill passed and signed into law this month so some of these legal changes can take effect before the program launches next month,” Boyack said.
Correction: A previous version quoted Stenquist as saying her organization opposed limiting the number of prescriptions one doctor can give out. She actually said she opposes the law capping the number of patients to whom a doctor can recommend marijuana, as the law allows for recommending and not prescribing.
School bus driver says she lost job after using legal CBD oil
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WEST JORDAN — A Jordan School District bus driver said using over-the-counter CBD oil caused her to fail a drug test and lose her job.
Jeanette Hales failed the drug test despite using oil she said contains the legally permissible amount of less than 0.3% tetrahydrocannabinol, known as THC.
Hales has been driving school buses for 11 years, something she said she deeply enjoys and takes pride in. However, Hales also has a form of blood cancer and was taking the CBD oil as what she considered to be a natural alternative to stronger medications, leading her to fail a recent drug test.
“I have a blood cancer and I’m on a maintenance drug that costs $8,000 per month,” Hales said, citing the cost as one of the reasons why she recently turned to CBD oil.
The other reason was her husband recently retired from the military, losing what she describes as access to affordable health care. She thought the oil would also help handle the stress of making ends meet.
“I was looking for some relief for that,” Hales said.
As a school bus driver with the Jordan School District, Hales said she wanted to find something that wouldn’t impair her ability to safely get kids home.
“With driving a bus it’s actually legal to use a drug like Valium,” Hales said of district policies she claimed would technically permit her to use the powerful drug as long as she filed the proper documentation. However, instead of Valium, she started taking over-the-counter CBD oil 45 days ago.
“Everybody knows that Valium can cause you to drive impaired and I felt like I was making a responsible choice to use a herb that is safe and does not impair driving,” Hales said.
She said the brand she bought, Charlotte’s Web, contains the legally permissible amount of less than 0.3% THC.
“I chose a product that was 0.1%,” Hales said, pointing out that the label on the bottle doesn’t include THC as one of the ingredients.
Then, Hales said she was randomly picked to take a drug test on Dec. 5.
“I went and gave them a sample and then two days later, I get a report that I had failed,” Hales said.
Hales said she was put on administrative leave for five days but eventually, her managers told her they would have to let her go under the district’s policy. She said she was given the option to quit or be fired.
“They care, they tried,” Hales said. “The sad part is I’m the first person in my school district to get caught in this situation and they were unsure how to handle it. They believed that I wasn’t using marijuana.”
“CBD oil will not impair, the trace amount of THC in there is not going to intoxicate you,” said Libertas Institute President Connor Boyack. “It’s not going to cause any problems. That’s why people are using it all over Utah right now without any problem.”
Boyack said he has heard of several instances similar to this case and it’s an issue that needs to be addressed with the state’s changing cannabis laws.
“This is an instance where one law has not kept up with another,” he said.
According to Boyack, those who consume legally permissible CBD oil with less than 0.3% THC still run the risk of failing a drug test that detects trace amounts of THC.
“The public doesn’t really know about it,” he said.
Boyack said those taking CBD oils over-the-counter are legally more vulnerable than those who consume medical marijuana.
In Hales’ case, Boyack said, “She could potentially qualify as a medical marijuana user and have THC in her system from that medical cannabis use. She’d fail the drug test but the law protects medical cannabis users.”
It’s an issue Boyack said he hopes to have addressed in the next legislative session.
“That’s the little loophole or grey area that we are going to try and fix,” Boyack said.
Meanwhile, Hales hopes her story will help others in her shoes.
“That’s why I called KSL,” she said. “I don’t want my fellow bus drivers to lose their jobs or anyone over CBD.”
Jordan School District spokesperson Sandra Riesgraf confirmed that Hales resigned and said the district could not provide more information on her case. Riesgraf added that the district follows all state and federal mandates when it comes to drug testing for their bus drivers.
USA: CBD is costing people jobs in Utah
Hemp-derived CBD oil doesn’t contain enough THC to get you high, but it may have enough to get you fired. At least, that’s what has happened recently in Utah.
Salt Lake City resident Mandi had never used cannabis before her doctor recommended CBD oil to help with anxiety and migraines.
After months of searching for a job, she finally had a lucky break and advanced to the final stages of the interview process. But a drug test she took showed THC in her system, and her job offer was revoked.
Since then she has stopped taking CBD, and her migraines and anxiety have worsened. Mandi told KUTV’s 2News programme:
“I felt devastated. I’ve been looking for a job since May.”
Mandi isn’t alone in her struggle. Fellow Utahn resident Elisa also contacted the local TV station to say she had been using CBD as a sleep aid until she was made to take a drug test after breaking her foot in an accident at the high school where she worked. The test showed up positive for THC. Elisa lost her job as a teacher after five years. She told local news reporters:
“Even just going back to that moment, I’m still stunned.”
CBD oil for medical use has been legal in the state since 2014, initially for approved patients with intractable epilepsy.
In 2018 a more diverse range of patients were able to qualify for a medical cannabis card that allowed them access to a wider range of whole plant products.
Meanwhile, CBD supplements bearing the <0.3% THC stamp are available over the counter to members of the general public in Utah.
Despite several states decriminalising cannabis for medical or recreational use, many employers still operate a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to drugs.
While CBD oil can contain very low amounts of THC, studies have proven that THC is absorbed into fat cells and accumulates over time, which explains why it can test for positive.
There have been calls to abandon zero-tolerance policies in favour of something more considerate. Robert Sheen, co-owner of Rocky Mountain Hemp in Murray, Utah, said:
“I think policies need to be updated to reflect what’s legal. I think that is a huge problem, not having updated policies for what we now know is the reality of things. We know that it’s legal so why aren’t company policies reflecting that?”
Organisations that employ a zero-tolerance policy can fire an employee who tests positive for THC regardless of what product they are consuming.