“High, I’m Your HR Manager.”

Getting into the Weeds of Medical Marijuana and Employment Drug Testing

Ten months ago, my world was turned upside-down. Life was good — My marriage and job were both going great, and the kids were about to graduate from high school. I was living the American dream — happy and healthy… so I thought.

Over the summer, I began experiencing a painful tightness in my hip. I visited my doctor to discuss possible causes. While there, I mentioned (as a side note) that the enlarged lymph nodes that had appeared in my groin two years ago were still there, and new ones had formed in my neck. (I’d had blood tests in the past and found no irregularities, but it concerned me that the nodes hadn’t cleared.) My doctor ordered a biopsy. I had no other signs of illness, so neither of us expected the biopsy to reveal any real issues. We were shocked when I tested positive for Mantle-Cell Lymphoma (MCL), a rare form of Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma that typically affects men over age 60. (I’m a 45-year-old female — not the typical MCL patient.)

Hence began the period of my life that I call The Terrible Awful — the 3-week period of time following diagnosis, which felt like 3 years. This was the time in which I knew I had cancer, but I didn’t have any details. I didn’t know how far along the disease was, nor did I know how aggressive it was. I began to spin and twirl… wondering if I was on a fast-track to death. The emotions I experienced during The Terrible Awful were varied, intense, and often contradictory. I was somehow acutely focused on the PRESENT MOMENT while also being lost in random thoughts. I stayed productive and focused on work during the week then had to force myself out of bed on weekends. I would tout words of strength and “beating cancer” one minute, and sob uncontrollably the next. I simultaneously reached out to my support system, asking them for good vibes while retreating from the rest of the world, focused on the impossible question, “WHY ME?”

The period I call the Terrible Awful came to an end when I met with my oncologist to review the results of my CT scan and bone marrow biopsy. She didn’t have all good news for me, but I was glad to at least have some clear answers. She told me that my lymphoma was Stage 4 (meaning it was affecting lymph nodes in both hemispheres of my body, with some involvement in my bone marrow). She told me this brand of cancer was incurable. As bleak as this sounds, I was relieved to find that my cancer was indolent (slow-moving), and low-risk (not an immediate threat to my life). My doctor said several clinical trials were underway. Scientists were searching for a cure, or at least a treatment to keep the disease under control. She was optimistic that science would eventually catch up, and one day she would be able to give me a pill to manage the condition.

Since The Terrible Awful, I’ve made some major life changes in an effort to make my body inhospitable to cancer. I’ve been eating a plant-based diet and exercising five times per week. I’ve dabbled in energy healing, yoga, and meditation, looking for ways to remain calm and develop my chi.

Have these things worked? It’s hard to tell. At every bi-monthly visit, my oncologist says my blood levels are perfect. So far, I don’t have the B symptoms (like night sweats or fatigue). These are all good signs. But the disease HAS progressed. In December, I could find twenty enlarged lymph nodes in my neck, underarms and groin. Now I can find close to fifty, and many have grown in size. The nodes aren’t dangerous/problematic now, but it’s clearly just a matter of time before treatment will be necessary.

Here’s the deal — I NEVER WANT TO UNDERGO CHEMOTHERAPY. This form of treatment may be right for some people, but I don’t see it in my future. So in addition to making changes in my diet and lifestyle, I’ve researched alternative options for treatment. In this research, one form of treatment has surfaced again and again — Cannabis.

Apparently, there are numerous people out there who have put their cancer in remission by ingesting large amounts of concentrated cannabis oil. Of course, written studies about this method are few, because cannabis only recently became decriminalized, and only in some states. For now, I am relying on anecdotal stories and online articles / videos. I’ve seen enough evidence to make the decision that I am going to try treating my disease with cannabis oil. This has been the hardest decision I have ever made. I mean, WHAT KIND OF HUMAN RESOURCES PROFESSIONAL REGULARLY USES MARIJUANA? What if I lose my job? Will I be able to find work? How would pre-hire drug testing affect my ability to find work elsewhere?

I’ve gone back to the interwebs to see what answers I can find to these questions. Just like my disease, this research will involve a lot of patient watching and waiting. The verdict is not final regarding medical marijuana and pre-hire drug testing, and it won’t be final until the Federal Supreme Court steps in.

There are currently 24 jurisdictions with laws that legalize use of marijuana for medical purposes (and I’m fortunate to live in one of them). Five states have even legalized the drug for recreational use, and similar legislation is pending in a number of other jurisdictions. Statutes in this area are new. The states have not yet ironed out judicial interpretation, so guidance for employers is scarce.

Here’s what we DO know:

  • Most states allow access to medical marijuana only through a registration or ID card. (OK…)
  • Most states authorize job termination or discipline for marijuana use or intoxication. (Boo.)
  • In most states, an employer can refuse to hire based on a positive drug test for this legally prescribed drug. (Boo again.)
  • Some states prohibit discrimination against individuals on the basis of their being medical marijuana registration cardholders. (Yay!)
  • Under some state laws, it is illegal to discipline an employee for marijuana used during non-work hours pursuant to a valid prescription. (Yay again!)

I definitely don’t expect to land a federal job in the near future (or ever), because federal workers’ marijuana policies are governed by the federal Drug Free Workplaces Act, which requires entities that contract with the federal government to enforce zero-tolerance policies regarding use of illegal drugs in the workplace. Marijuana is still an illegal drug under federal law, so no state law may require a federal contractor to accommodate marijuana use.

I’m keeping an eye on a case in Colorado: Coats v. Dish Network, LLC. The case is pending before the Colorado Supreme Court (CSC). Up for decision is whether the employer acted lawfully when it terminated the employment of a quadriplegic person who suffered from debilitating muscle spasms and possessed a valid medical marijuana prescription. The termination decision was based on the employee’s positive test for marijuana use even though he was never under the influence of the drug on company premises.

The Colorado trial court dismissed the employee’s lawsuit for wrongful termination, ruling that the employer had acted lawfully. Marijuana use is illegal under federal law, so the court determined that it could not be considered “lawful activity” under Colorado Law, even though it is explicitly legal in that state. A State Supreme Court decision is expected by year’s end. The outcome could be significant for employers and employees in all states. If the CSC affirms the ruling in favor of the employer, it is likely to strengthen the right of employers in all states to terminate employment for any and all marijuana use, regardless of the legality of marijuana use under state law. By contrast, a CSC outcome in favor of the employee could incent employers to rethink, rewrite, or even eliminate their zero-tolerance policies.

The long-standing debate over the efficacy of workplace drug testing must be resolved soon. What’s left to consider? Apparently, marijuana accounts for more failed workplace drug tests than any other substance. New laws have the potential of decreasing or eliminating employer testing for it. Defenders of drug testing maintain that employees who use drugs, including marijuana, have been found to miss more work, cause more accidents, change jobs more frequently and ultimately cost employers more money. But you know who those defenders are? Many of them are part of the drug test industry, and they are mobilizing to oppose the wave of legislation and litigation they expect to arise from this conflict between workplace policies and changes in laws.

What does this all mean to someone like me? It means I’m very, very fortunate that I live in a state where marijuana use is now legal, and equally fortunate to work for a company where people are understanding about my plight. I’m able to take the time needed to treat my illness while continuing to hold down a job I love. That is exactly what I intend to do — I’ll be taking six weeks off to try this radical approach. Will it work? Only time will tell. It’s worth trying, though. After all, if I do end up undergoing chemotherapy one day, I’ll be down for about six months (plus another year of recovery time). Cannabis treatment only requires two months, and side effects are minimal (and much more pleasant than side effects of manufactured medicines).

It also means that, at least for now, my dreams of becoming a helicopter pilot are on hold.