Thursday, June 20, 2024

Bills Advance to Protect State Employees Who Access Medical Cannabis

A cannabis plant grown at home in a closet, courtesy of the grower. (VCU Capital News Service)

RICHMOND — State lawmakers have advanced bills that would allow public sector employees to use medical cannabis without losing their job.

House Bill 149, introduced by Del. Dan Helmer, D-Fairfax, extends to state public employees rights that already exist in the private sector. The bill passed with bipartisan support on a 78-20 vote.

Helmer sponsored HB 1862 three years ago, to protect patients approved for medical cannabis use. That bill “unintentionally did not protect public sector employees,” Helmer said.

“The key was we left our brave first responders out of this,” Helmer said. “That was never our intent and so this bill is meant to fix that.”

A cannabis product is anything from CBD up to 10 milligrams of THC per dose, the current state cap, as long as the product is produced, sold and tested through the medical cannabis program.

Public sector employees such as firefighters, police officers and teachers are among the groups that would be protected under Helmer’s bill if they are approved to use cannabis products to treat conditions or diseases.

Senate Bill 391, introduced by Sen. Stella Pekarsky, D-Fairfax, also offers protection to public sector employees, with the exception of law enforcement officers. The bill passed the Senate with a 30-10 vote.

Peksarsky’s bill uses language that extends protection for use of cannabis oil.

Helmer’s bill was amended from “cannabis oil” to “cannabis products,” which he said is meant to “refer to a slew of medically recommended products that have cannabis as the basis.”

Any increase in inquiries or modifications to existing policies would be absorbed within existing resources by the Department of Labor and Industry or Department of Human Resource Management, respectively, according to the bill’s impact statement.

Joe Mirabile, a representative of Virginia’s Professional Firefighters, testified in support of Helmer’s bill during its committee hearing.

“My members have reported that they’re relying on alcohol far less, they’re sleeping more at home and they’re seeing other positive effects, such as reduction of joint and muscle pain without having to use opioid prescriptions,” Mirabile said.

The only legal way that a person can purchase cannabis in the state is through the medical cannabis program. Approved state practitioners can issue a certification after an initial consultation.

Dawn Adams, a nurse practitioner and former state delegate who represented the Richmond area, operates a medical cannabis practitioner clinic. Cannabis products are often used to help with PTSD, anxiety and sleep problems that are associated with the employee’s role, according to Adams.

Over-the-counter and prescription drugs, along with alcohol, can sometimes have lingering effects compared to an appropriate dose of short-acting cannabis medication, Adams said. But that has been the only option for many workers.

“Many of these people have had to jump through a thousand hoops to even be considered to use medical cannabis,” Adams said. “When in fact, it would be a pretty decent alternative to many of the health determinants that are associated with their life.”

Employers would still be able to prohibit use of cannabis on the job and take action against any employee whose work is impaired because of cannabis use. The proposed bill does not make any changes to the current law in regards to federal workers.

There is no widely available rapid test to nail down the window of cannabis use to determine if an employee was impaired at work. Researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University are working on a THC breathalyzer to help law enforcement detect cannabis impairment, and distinguish between THC and CBD use.

Chelsea Higgs Wise is the executive director of the advocacy group Marijuana Justice, which is focused on helping the state create an equitable recreational cannabis marketplace.

“State employees should be allowed to access cannabis in their off-work time,” Higgs Wise said.

The group supports Helmer’s bill.

 “We understand the nuances that public employees are navigating and are excited to offer our support for this extension of wellness to our employees of the Commonwealth,” Higgs Wise stated in the organization’s letter of support to Helmer.

There are approximately 1,000 approved medical cannabis practitioners in Virginia. A total of 98,396 patients used their written certification in 2023 to receive medical cannabis through the state program, according to the managing agency Cannabis Control Authority.

Both bills now advance to the other chamber.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

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