Many Steamboat employers say there is no need for marijuana-specific policies
October 6, 2010
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Steamboat Springs — In the fast-evolving world of medical marijuana, a doctor's recommendation might protect you from law enforcement, but it won't protect you at work.
Many of Steamboat Springs' larger employers don't have policies related specifically to medical marijuana. And many of them said they've yet to deal with issues related to employees who have been authorized by the state to use marijuana for medicinal purposes.
That is true for the city of Steamboat Springs, Human Resources Director John Thrasher said. Because of the city's existing drug and alcohol policy, which prohibits substance abuse, he said Steamboat may not have to.
"It really is sort of an oddball one because it's not an over-the-counter medication," Thrasher said about medical marijuana. "It's not prescribed by doctors. Under federal law, it's a controlled substance and according to that, if being abused, you can't come to work doing that."
Colorado voters approved Amendment 20 in 2000, making the use of medical marijuana legal for patients with certain conditions and a doctor's recommendation. Since 2009, it's estimated that more than 100,000 Coloradans have been approved to use medical marijuana.
Amendment 20 doesn't provide protections for employees. Instead, it states: "Nothing in this section shall require any employer to accommodate the medical use of marijuana in any workplace."
Despite that, medical marijuana advocates said they'll work with state legislators — who this year approved two pieces of legislation that were signed into law in an attempt to better regulate Colorado's burgeoning medical marijuana industry — to get protections for employees approved to use the drug.
"We plan on pushing a patients' bill of rights," said Brian Vicente, executive director of Sensible Colorado, an advocate for medical marijuana patients. "That would be focused on establishing some protections for patients that have been kind of whittled down in the law."
No. 1 on Vicente's list for the upcoming legislative session is employment protections.
Of the 14 states where medical marijuana is legal, only Rhode Island provides protections for employees, students and renters, who can't be penalized for their status as medical marijuana cardholders.
Colorado Attorney General John Suthers said that there have been no legal challenges to the employee provision in Amendment 20 but that he thinks that's bound to change.
"One wonders when you've got a couple hundred thousand people with these permits in the workplace whether somebody's going to allege, 'You have to accommodate me,'" Suthers said. "We'll see."
Amendment 20 also states that no governmental, private or any other health insurance provider should be held liable for a claim to reimburse a patient for the use of medical marijuana.
Like the city, which employs 275 full-time workers, many of Steamboat's larger employers said they have no specific provisions in their drug policies related to medical marijuana. Most take a zero-tolerance approach to all controlled substances whether recommended by a doctor or not.
Christine McKelvie, spokeswoman for Yampa Valley Medical Center, which employs about 550 people, said the hospital's policy is to maintain a drug- and alcohol-free workplace.
"Our policy includes controlled substances, prescription substances, over-the-counter medications and alcohol," she said. "What the policy is intended to do and what we apply it toward is a safe environment for our patients, our long-term residents, co-workers and employees themselves. We don't tolerate impairment regardless of the source."
The policies for Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp., which employs about 1,900 people, including part-timers and volunteers during winter, are intended to provide a drug-free workplace, Trish Sullivan, vice president of human relations, said in a statement.
"Marijuana possession and use was and remains illegal under federal law regardless of state statutes to the contrary, and our policies must continue to reflect that," she said.
Thrasher said the city's drug and alcohol policy requires that some employees, such as bus drivers, take pre-employment drug screenings. He said employees are subject to random testing if their supervisor has "reasonable suspicion" they are abusing drugs or alcohol. Thrasher added that if an employee is caught using drugs or alcohol at work or tests positive, the city can take disciplinary action up to and including termination.
He said it's going to be interesting as more of Colorado's work force is approved to use medical marijuana. As it stands, he guesses most employers are scratching their heads about how to address it.
"I think employers have to be careful because we do have concerns about productivity, workplace safety," Thrasher said. "We're going to take the stance that if someone is under the influence of any drug, prescribed or otherwise, we're going to take action. That's what it boils down to."
Part 2 Green rush: Medical marijuana quickly has become the basis for lucrative businesses, and entrepreneurs aren't the only ones cashing in.
Part 3 Blazing the trail: Municipalities across the state have been forced to weigh in on the marijuana debate. The months ahead will shape the industry.