BY MONA ZHANG
A senior programmer and systems analyst in Lane County, Oregon is getting his job back after being fired for his medical marijuana use.
An arbitrator ruled in favor of 60-year-old Michael Hirsch, who used medical cannabis to manage the negative effects of cancer treatment, reports the Register Guard. He’ll be reinstated at his job next week and has received $21,550 in back pay.
This type of ruling is rare—employees who are fired over medical cannabis use usually have no recourse due to federal prohibition. In June 2015, a medical marijuana patient in Colorado lost his case against the Dish Network after he was fired for his off-duty medical cannabis use. The Colorado Supreme Court decided that federal law applied in this case, even though the patient was following the state’s medical marijuana laws.
For Hirsh, the ruling was a welcome surprise. He had difficulty finding work due to the media attention his firing generated and had to sign up for food stamps.
“Here I am, instead of being a productive member of society, I’m becoming a ward of the state,” Hirsch told the Register Guard. “I can’t believe that, as a society, we’re going to criminalize people from taking medicine, especially related to life-threatening effects of cancer treatment.”
The county is required to be a “drug-free workplace” in order to receive federal funding. But state law also requires that the county adhere to the arbitrator’s decision.
“[Returning to work] won’t be awkward from my side of things, but it may be awkward with those (county employees) who are ignorant of the facts and who feel they made a great effort to fire me and keep me fired,” Hirsch said.
Indeed, it was his colleagues who had reported him for smelling like weed.
Unfortunately, this ruling is unlikely to affect similar cases in Oregon or in other MMJ-legal states.
A major factor in the arbitrator’s ruling was the union contract governing Hirsch’s employment, which states that an employee may only be disciplined for their off-duty behavior if it affects his or her job performance. (Hirsch had received numerous positive reviews from his supervisors.)
Only about 11 percent of American workers belonged to a union in 2015, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Most unions probably don’t have contracts that would protect their workers in a case like this. Plus, state laws usually favor employers—Ohio’s new medical marijuana program allows employers to maintain their drug-free policies.
While Hirsch’s story is welcome news for cannabis advocates, there’s only one way to prevent medical marijuana patients from unfairly losing their jobs: repeal federal prohibition.