WBUR

Marijuana, Both Legal And Illegal, Triggers License Confusion For Doctors, Cops

BOSTON — Tens of thousands of Massachusetts residents could be at risk of losing their jobs if they use marijuana for medical relief, as government agencies work to balance the new state medical marijuana law with federal law, which says the drug is illegal under all circumstances.

Marijuana starts on a shelf during the opening of a Seattle medical marijuana market on Feb. 13 (Elaine Thompson/AP)

Marijuana starts on a shelf during the opening of a Seattle medical marijuana market on Feb. 13 (Elaine Thompson/AP)

One potential scenario: A doctor who becomes a medical marijuana patient would be at “significant risk” of violating his or her license to practice medicine, according to Bill Ryder, legislative and regulatory counsel for the Massachusetts Medical Society.

Ryder says the main problem for doctors is a question on the state license application that asks, “Do you use an illegal drug?” The state Board of Registration in Medicine, which reviews physician licenses and applications, may still be bound to interpret “illegal drug” according to federal law.

“So the board could require you to report that and then judge you on the basis of the fact that you may have violated federal law,” Ryder explains.

Even if the board makes an exception for medical marijuana, and a physician has a certificate from his or her doctor, Ryder says the physician who is a patient may still put his or her license at risk.

“The board might find that, ‘Gee, we don’t find this use appropriate,’ ” says Ryder, “even if another physician certified you as having a debilitating condition that might benefit. They [board members] might say, ‘No, no, this is recreational use, disguised as a clinical use.’ ”

There’s no clarity yet from state licensing boards. Panels that review nurses, mental health workers, dentists and many other professions says they are waiting for the Department of Public Health to write regulations on medical marijuana before “determining whether changes to board regulations or policy may be appropriate.”

Nursing and other health care unions think their members will not be in violation of their licenses, as long as they aren’t working while under the effects of marijuana. Still, there’s some uncertainty here, as with many parts of the medical marijuana law.

Some transportation workers, including MBTA employees, are required to report any prescription or over-the-counter drug use to the T. A spokeswoman says a staff doctor decides if workers are fit to work while taking medication.

As for licensed professionals, the Patrick administration said in a statement that “generally, if a licensee is convicted of a crime, the Board considers enforcement actions.” But what if possession of marijuana is a crime under federal law, but not in this state?

For police officers and anyone who carries a gun on the job, it appears federal law wins.

“Any person who uses or is addicted to marijuana, regardless of whether the state has passed legislation authorizing marijuana use for medicinal purposes, is prohibited by federal law from possessing firearms or ammunition,” says Donna Sellers, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Police departments in Massachusetts are expected to enforce this rule and some labor lawyers are conceding that medical marijuana for police officers is out of the question.

“The federal law is the federal law,” says Bryan Decker, an attorney at Sandulli Grace who represents a number of municipal police unions. “In Massachusetts, it is a job condition for police officers to carry a firearm. I think that is clear.”

But Decker says officers should be able to help care for someone who has a marijuana certificate from their physician.

“If a spouse becomes a qualifying patient, the personal caregiver is someone who assists them in the administration of that medicine, but they are prohibited under the law from being a medical marijuana user,” Decker says. He argues that in this situation, officers should not face consequences.

Police chiefs across the state are reviewing this issue. An even bigger dilemma for those chiefs may be if they can issue gun licenses to civilians who use medical marijuana. The ATF spokeswoman said anyone who possesses a gun — not just police officers — cannot also possess marijuana. Gun license applications ask about illegal drug use. It isn’t clear if police will have a database of medical marijuana users against which they could check gun license applicants.

“If an applicant self-discloses that they are using what is a federally illegal substance, then that is going to present a new question for us,” says Wayne Sampson, director of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association.

In Oregon, the state Supreme Court ruled that sheriffs can’t deny weapons permits to applicants because they use medical marijuana. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the Oregon case. The federal ban on possession of a gun and marijuana stands.

Back to job risks. We’ll have much more coverage on this in the weeks to come, but here are two more cautions to keep in mind: There’s a law called the federal Drug-Free Workplace Act. It says companies that accept federal grants or contracts must ban employee use of illegal drugs, including marijuana. Some federal transportation funding includes the same prohibition. Employment lawyers say these funding rules have not been enforced aggressively in the past.

If the federal government does step up enforcement, Shaleen Title of the Massachusetts Medical Marijuana Association, a new industry group, urges employers to respect state law.

“It’s our hope that as long as the patient is privately using medical marijuana to treat an illness and it’s not interfering with their work, there’s no reason why employers would discriminate against them,” Title says.

But discrimination may not be the issue. It may be how Massachusetts will become the latest state looking for a way to comply with conflicting state and federal laws.

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  • Thinkfreeer

    Just a symptom of the tangled web of too many laws and rules.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kevin-Hunt/100003205282238 Kevin Hunt

      The decline of several great societies was preceded by burdensome regulations.

  • Thinkfreeer

    I’ve always wondered, if they could actually make a plant illegal, why didn’t they make poison ivy illegal?

    • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

      because then there would be more of it

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kevin-Hunt/100003205282238 Kevin Hunt

      I’d be OK with that…but then the high schoolers would start selling it to their friends.

  • Jasoturner

    Given that pot probably has far fewer health effects than booze (including drunk driving carnage), it’s hard to see what the big deal is. It isn’t like this is unleashing some unimaginable drug horror on mankind. I’m sure we’ll muddle through.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_IX3IP2HMCATSGW7G7BINTSKQRQ Promytius

    NO PROBLEM! In fact, here’s the solution: don’t legalize it, just make liquor ILLEGAL!

    • Al Dorman28

      Among cretins, at least you’re consistent. Congrats!

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kevin-Hunt/100003205282238 Kevin Hunt

      How well did alcohol prohibition work the last time it was tried?

      • crescentfang

        About as well as the “War on Drugs”. You missed the irony in his statement.

  • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

    well if its so important to the ATF let them try to enforce it. as these other states have found the state is not responsible for enforcing federal law.

  • http://twitter.com/Elifromthe802 Eli

    Unbelievable straw man argument, it’s almost impressive how the issue of regulating firearms could be linked with medical marijuana; almost like an ad lib for avoiding talking about gun ownership and real issues like violent crime or mental illness.

    Maybe I’m wrong, but I highly doubt there’s a large enough contingent of medical MJ patients or caretakers to make this a relevant issue. What are the policies for monitoring alcohol use or domestic violence among law enforcement officers, who are all carrying weapons?

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kevin-Hunt/100003205282238 Kevin Hunt

      It’s not marijuana that is making people go on shooting sprees. It may be pharmaceuticals.

      * Aurora shooter James Holmes, who murdered 12 people and injured 58 in a movie theatre, was on prescription meds —the names of these medications have been redacted from court documents.

      * Columbine (April 20, 1999) mass-killer Eric Harris was taking Luvox® (Fluvoxamine maleate)

      * Patrick Purdy, who murdered five children and wounded 30 at Cleveland Elementary School in San Diego, on January 17, 1989, was using Amitriptyline (an antidepressant), as well as the antipsychotic drug Thorazine.

      * Kip Kinkel, 15, murdered his parents and then opened fire on his classmates at Thurston High School in Springfield, Oregon, May, 1998, killing two and wounding 22 others. He had been prescribed both Prozac and Ritalin.

      * In 1988, 31-year-old Laurie Dann went on a shooting rampage in a second-grade classroom in Winnetka, Illinois, killing one child and wounding six. She had been taking the antidepressant Anafranil as well as Lithium.

      * In Paducah, Ky., in late 1997, 14-year-old Michael Carneal, traveled to Heath High School and started shooting students in a prayer meeting taking place in the school’s lobby, killing three and leaving another paralyzed. Carneal reportedly was on Ritalin.

  • Frank Reap

    More Common Sense. Not. These legislatures need to smoke a joint and put down their cigarettes and booze and look inward.

    • Duncan20903

      You say that as if it doesn’t happen. 02/15/2013: Video: Marijuana smell at Colorado Capitol prompts order to “douse all the doobies”
      blogs.westword.com/latestword/2013/02/marijuana_smell_colorado_capitol_video.php

  • Matthew Cunningham

    If a Doctor is impaired I care, however if he uses for rec or medical I don’t.care.

  • dab710

    in a year or 2 if medical MJ works out for mass. the dispensaries will eventually start getting raided by DEA FBI ect. thats how it is in the other 13+ states with MMJ. For every dispensary getting raided, there’s 2 opening up down the road.

  • jon jonzz manhunter from mars

    easy one on doc app, just say all the drugs you take are legal

    • Duncan20903

      Cocaine and methamphetamine are both legal by prescription. At 80x more potent fentanyl just isn’t the same as the uncut heroin your grandpa was shooting up in the 1960s, ditto.

      Oh, BTW, medicinal cannabis is legal in the Bay State.

      Toodles

  • http://churchofsmoke.org/ Jose

    I bet if there was a ballot initiative to make the government illegal, it would pass with a landslide.

  • Marty Garvey

    Why are we even considering this non-issue? Any doctor or cop who uses pot should be smart enough to keep it quiet and not risk their career. If they are stupid enough to get caught, they are too stupid to be in one of those jobs. Can we move on to something interesting and relevant?

    • BernardKingIII

      So Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, in other words.

  • Geoff Dutton

    Licensing boards, hospitals, the T, first responder agencies and other employers need to know if pot impairs workers, and if so to what extent and how. That can only be known by studying its effects under controlled conditions (this is called evidence-based policy-making). However, federal law, as I understand it, prohibits experiments with pot on people (and maybe even on animals), another catch-22. Until the feds wise up and give states and researchers latitude to seek truth, a whole lot of lying will have to go on and we, the public, will be the experimental animals.

  • …Mac

    Drunks with guns are smiling..somewhat askew.

  • Hansjurg

    ‘Gee, we don’t find this use appropriate,’

    Gee, your bosses, THE TAXPAYERS, did, and they found it so by more than 2 to 1. In a year or so we’ll vote to make it completely legal and it’ll sail through by a similar margin. The Feds can go eat a bug,

  • B.G.

    but its ok to have police forces full of drunks carrying guns.I’m the only one who decides what goes in my body,no cop or politician ever will have a say.prescription drugs are dangerous and addictive and kill people everyday.no one in the history of mankind ever died from smoking pot.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Matt-McLaughlin/100000039777325 Matt McLaughlin

    Medicinal mj users were denied gun licenses for years by feds. They won. Next.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/J2JL4PN3WJMX6EPBZNAUF25ZYM Jim

    so Mr Obama, is it legal or illegal ?

  • scottie408

    Lemme make sure I understand this. A cop or a doctor can be taking opiates, benzos and antidepressants if taking as prescribed. While at work. Yeah that’s reasonable.

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