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County weighs use of medical marijuana by employees

by on May 10, 2018 9:15 AM

BELLEFONTE — The state law that allows medical marijuana use in the Pennsylvania went into effect in February, but marijuana is still considered illegal by the federal government. 

For Centre County government, the question is whether to allow the use of medical marijuana by its employees and risk losing federal grant money, as the county is required to follow the Drug-Free Work Place Act.

The act requires that any organization that receives federal funds of more than $100,000 must comply with the drug-free policy. 

“With Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana act in place, we have to understand that the federal law and the Pennsylvania law must co-exist. But, because the county receives over $100,000 of federal grant funds, we are obligated to comply with the federal regulation, and the federal regulation is the law of the land, and marijuana will remain illegal under the federal law,” said Sue Hannagen, senior adviser for the county. 

A proposed change to the county’s drug-free workplace policy that was brought to the May 8 county commissioners meeting would not allow county employees to use medical marijuana, even if they carried a medical access card, due to federal contract concerns.

The county does not test its employees randomly for drugs, but if an employee were using medical marijuana and was observed too incapable of doing his or her work tasks, there is a process the employee would have to go through with potential testing, said Hannagen. The process would be the same as if the employee was using any other drugs or alcohol. 

“An employee who is tested and is found to have marijuana in their system, it is a reportable offense because of the federal law, because we receive grants in access of $100,000,” said Hannagen.

She said it is important that the state and federal laws co-exist. 

“One is strongly anti-discrimination against an individual who is a card-carrying medical marijuana user and the other is very strictly based on anyone who tests positive for a controlled substance is a reportable offense.”

Hannagen also said the state law makes it clear a workplace cannot discriminate against individuals who carry a certified medical marijuana card, so an individual could be using medical marijuana, performing job functions without issue, and would not be subject to the testing. But, Hannagen said those in safety and security positions are tested before hire or transfer into the position and medical marijuana is considered a drug that would prevent hiring, according to the proposed policy.

The county commissioners agreed that the federal dollars they receive are important, but disagree on how to move forward.

“Certainly, we would not want to jeopardize the federal funding that we receive, however, our Senate and House in Pennsylvania and the governor signed the medical marijuana law and they still receive federal funding. For two years, they have received the billions of dollars they get from the federal government,” said chairman Michael Pipe.

“The need to move away from the addictive opioids that are causing people to overdose and moving on to a less addictive pain management system is certainly needed. So, I am personally comfortable with removing that and making it so our employees are able to use medical marijuana as an option. But we need to understand what that will open us up to from a legal perspective. But we need to make changes that allow our employees to manage pain. To take that off the table, I don’t know if that is a wise decision.

“Hopefully, the federal government changes its perspective and allows marijuana to not be a schedule one drug. It doesn’t sound like this administration is willing to do that, but that is another discussion. But for the 600 or so employees we have, I think it is an option we want to look at.”

Pipe proposed that the county solicitor review the changes to the plan before the county makes any changes, and the plan has been put on hold for now. Not all of the commissioners believe that the medical marijuana restriction should be removed from the policy.

“I think under federal law it is clear that marijuana is still a controlled substance, so I think we need to be mindful of that as we move forward because we want to make sure that doesn’t jeopardize the county common sense and the letter of the law that we need to adhere to,” said Commissioner Steven Dershem. 

“I think what you've got here, particularly in Centre County where you have corrections officers, law enforcement officers and other people who are responsible for public safety, I think we need to look at his pretty clearly. And, to me, I think they wrote it right,” said Dershem. 

Commissioner Mark Higgins said the county should seek guidance from the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, and Hannagen said the county can make a request and get information.

Higgins said the language in the policy needs to be clear. Pipe said the issue is something the county is going to have to make a decision on.

“I have people I know who are using medicinal marijuana, and we are going to have a dispensary open in a few months on Atherton, so it is going to be in our community. There certain laws that are on the books that don’t make sense, so we need to be a part of that change. The state, in a very bipartisan manner, made this law, against federal law,” said Pipe. “We shouldn’t preclude our employees from looking into this.”

The county has put the policy on hold until it can get clear answers and guidance about the laws. The matter will continue to be discussed at a future date.

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