Medical pot can disrupt job searches in New Mexico
Pain from the knife wound remained intense long after the altercation that Colin Tenorio was involved in at a city park in the summer of 2015.
The 23-year-old from Santo Domingo Pueblo said he was defending himself against an unknown assailant when he suffered a bloody wound to his left arm that required two surgeries.
Two years later, Tenorio was still in pain. He tried various medical remedies, including the highly addictive oxycodone, but nothing quite worked. In February, after studying the benefits of various strains of medical marijuana, he received a license to legally use it to combat the pain.
“It calmed me down, relaxed my body,” he said.
The pain diminished. But a new agony awaited: Tenorio couldn’t get a job because so many local employers required him to take a drug test as a condition of employment.
“I figured I could get a job, no problem,” he said. “It didn’t even come to mind that I would have any trouble. It’s not like I smoke [marijuana] to get high. I just didn’t know using it would cost me jobs.”
Tenorio’s story is not unique, said Jessica Gelay, policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance of New Mexico.
“It’s a big problem,” she said. “Medical cannabis patients should be able to use their medicine like everyone else, but the federal prohibition is extremely problematic. Our state law has no protections for people who are seeking employment.”
Currently, about 58,000 New Mexicans — including some 6,760 in Santa Fe — have legal access to medical cannabis, according to the New Mexico Department of Health. These are patients suffering from a number of approved ailments and diseases, including cancer, HIV/AIDS and chronic pain, who benefit from a state law approved in 2007 by both the Legislature and then-Gov. Bill Richardson.
But there are complications for those patients seeking work. Under the federal Controlled Substances Act, cannabis is classified as a Schedule I drug, the same category as heroin and LSD, all considered highly addictive and without medical value. Thus, Gelay said, any New Mexico employers that have any ties to the federal government — including Los Alamos National Laboratory — and any entities, such as medical groups, that receive federal funds, likely have drug testing policies in place.
Other local employers, such as national chain stores, also may have drug test requirements and offer little, if any, flexibility for applicants who legally use medical cannabis.
Tenorio said he discovered this as he applied for jobs in supermarkets and medical and veterinary offices.
The situation also has led to at least one court case in New Mexico. Donna Smith, a military veteran who said she was sexually assaulted while in the service and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, sued Presbyterian Healthcare Services in Albuquerque after it asked her to submit to a urine test.
The results tested positive for marijuana, and Smith, who was using medical cannabis and had already begun working as a physician assistant, said she was fired.
She launched a lawsuit against Presbyterian in the summer of 2014. At the time, the company issued a statement saying “the use of medical marijuana is not recognized by federal law and Presbyterian has a mandate under federal law to provide a drug free workplace.”
In the summer of 2015, a state district judge ruled in favor of Presbyterian, leading Smith to tell the Albuquerque Journal, “What’s the point of having a medical program at all if it’s not compassionate?”
Efforts to reach Smith for comment were unsuccessful.
Gelay said she has talked to medical personnel, including nurses, who use medical marijuana and as a result have been ruled out for jobs that require drug testing.
Some medical institutions, like Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center, will hire workers with medical cannabis licenses, hospital spokesman Arturo Delgado said.
While the hospital conducts both pre-employment and random drug tests, “We do honor medical marijuana cards if they have been issued by a physician,” he said.
Still, where federal law is concerned, it’s an uphill battle for those using medical marijuana, said state Sen. Cisco McSorley, an Albuquerque Democrat who carried the bill that created the Medical Cannabis Program.
“The biggest part of this problem is where certain employers are bound by federal law,” he said. “There’s nothing we can do about that as a state. Otherwise, it’s almost always employers who have set boundaries for what employees have to do to get the job.”
Educating employers that aren’t tied to federal constraints might help, he said. For example, “If it’s something like a desk job and the employer has other employees using medicine that has a physical impact on them but still allows them to function,” then efforts to convince that employer to change policy on medical marijuana might pay off.
Gelay, Tenorio and Paul Armentano, deputy director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, all say states can and should do more to protect the civil rights of medical marijuana patients when it comes to removing barriers to employment.
“People should never have to choose between their medication and their employment,” Armentano said in an email.
Other states, he said, including Arizona, have laws that prohibit employers from discriminating against workers on the basis of their status as a medical marijuana patient, arguing a positive drug test in itself does not indicate impairment. However, these states still exempt employers who are required to follow federal drug-testing guidelines.
Gelay said there is hope for New Mexicans caught in this situation. A recent medical cannabis task force report suggested, among other measures, the state protect the civil rights of medical marijuana users when it comes to employment, housing and schooling.
Gov.-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham’s transition director, Dominic Gabello, said in an email last week that she “will direct a legal review of the matter and work with all stakeholders — employers, law enforcement, health care providers and patients — toward a solution that benefits all parties and protects patients.”
The possibility of reform is good news for Tenorio, who, after working for some months as a server in a brewery, just landed a job as a technician in a Santa Fe-based vision care center that does not conduct drug tests for employees.
He said his monthslong search for a job left him depressed.
“I thought I was going to end up working in the fast-food business,” he said. “It kind of sucked. I felt I was in a Catch-22 situation.
“Having a medical marijuana license shouldn’t shield you from other drug testing,” he said. “But I still think there should be an exception for medical marijuana. A lot of us need it to function.”