June 16, 2017
From time to time, I read "High Times" magazine. I like the pretty pictures. This week, though, a story with potentially huge ramifications locally drew my attention.
Jumping off a "Good Men Project" post by local journalist and activist Chris “Flood the Drummer” Norris, it was headlined “Philadelphia ponders eliminating drug testing for pot.”
My initial reaction? Hoo boy, this’ll rankle some folks as Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III seems hellbent on propping up the failed War on Drugs as it pertains to a plant that most Americans want to see legalized.
Per the articles, Mayor Jim Kenney – who was the driving legislative force behind Philly’s decriminalization effort – is willing to have a public, national conversation about banning some potential employers from testing for marijuana, at least until a conditional job offer is made.
With rampant poverty and unemployment, this will prevent marijuana smokers from getting knocked out of the job-search process because their urine came back hot for cannabis.
It’s also a way to start chipping away at the racial disparity in marijuana arrests that’s lingered into this decriminalization era, which is why Norris approached Kenney to talk about it after a press conference on Monday.
As someone who supports full legalization, I find this proposal refreshing. Can it actually happen, though? Prognosis: Unclear.
Chris Goldstein – an activist who teaches a “Marijuana in the Media” course at Temple University – broke down how it could potentially work.
He claimed drug testing for marijuana “is hurting job growth in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania overall,” but government cannot order businesses to stop the practice.
"The city and state can’t order people to change those practices, but they can change for the city and state and become a model for the private sector,” he said. “The only thing they can do is apply it to civil-service employees."
He also noted that Kenney, the district attorney or the commonwealth could stop the practice of marijuana testing for people on pre-trial probation and parole, thus forcing them into treatment and taking away services from those suffering from opiate addition.
“If it’s regulated by a doctor and for treatment for a number of things – whether that be cancer, PTSD or another (ailment) – we would not be an impediment to that." – John McNesby, president, FOP Lodge 5
“When we’re talking about drug testing for marijuana, it’s a massive issue and we have to start tackling it head on,” Goldstein said, pointing to NFL players lobbying to change rules and testing procedures as a potential approach for Philadelphia. “We can’t afford spending ($28 million annually) of taxpayer resources for court referrals of treatment that’s not for medical reasons.
“Cannabis consumers face significant barriers and discrimination in the workplace and criminal-justice system."
To Norris, the arrest statistics were the driving force. Believing that Kenney wants to take the decriminalization effort to the next step, “the question is what does that look like.”
Since the city can’t legalize marijuana outright, breaking employment barriers was a logical idea, he said.
“Clearly, the THC drug test is a barrier for many people poor, black and brown,” he said. “It seemed to me like that was something that Kenney would support so I wanted to pick his brain about it. He said it’s something that he was already talking about with his administration.”
Norris said he’s in the process of organizing a town hall meeting so it gets a fair airing locally.
Kenney's spokesperson Lauren Hitt acknowledged the conversation.
"The Mayor was asked by a reporter if he would be open to it after an unrelated press conference," she told PhillyVoice on Friday. "He said he would be, but internally the conversation hasn't evolved beyond that yet."
Now, for the fun part.
In its current iteration (which is very, very early in the process, mind you), such a move would change rules for Philadelphia’s police, firefighters and other first responders. Yes, that means cops could potentially smoke medical marijuana if this all comes to pass.
Medical marijuana is used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, including for many soldiers returning home from war who’ve seen things most of us only see in a nightmare scenario wrapped up in another nightmare.
Police, too, see these sorts of horrible things on a regular basis. As the rules are currently constructed, though, they’re forced to carry that burden without access to something proven to help immensely with PTSD.
“If I had $5 for every time a first responder asked me if they’ll be able to smoke pot, medical marijuana, I’d be a millionaire.” – Chris Goldstein, marijuana activist
That’s not to say that cops should smoke on the job. They shouldn’t. Guns, conflicts and weed don't mix. On that, I think we can all agree.
But if they’re off the clock, and marijuana can help them give them mental relief from the rigors of their profession, why should we prevent them from doing so? Even with medical marijuana's looming arrival in Pennsylvania, police are still subject to drug testing.
I spoke with FOP President John McNesby about it on Friday morning.
He immediately voiced objections to the prospect of hiring an officer who tested positive in the hiring process. Marijuana, he said, is still illegal so it just “wouldn’t be a good mix” to put Officer Smokey McSmokeface out on the streets to protect and serve. Fair enough.
But then, we got to talking about the soldier parallel. He quickly bought in.
“If it’s regulated by a doctor and for treatment for a number of things – whether that be cancer, PTSD or another (ailment) – we would not be an impediment to that, nor would we be a party to it,” McNesby said. “We already have a lot of programs and so forth to help people before they actually get in trouble with it. We want to get them help.”
For his part, Goldstein said he’s already fielded those very questions from first responders, and a lot of them at that.
“If I had $5 for every time a first responder asked me if they’ll be able to smoke pot, medical marijuana, I’d be a millionaire,” he said. “And if I had $5 for every time a civil servant asked me if they’d be able to use when it’s legal, I’d be a billionaire. They use it to treat PTSD for soldiers. Well, what about first responders?”
This is a good question. Let the discussion begin.