NEW YORK (MainStreet) For all the major reform that has happened on the marijuana front this year, from the implementation of recreational sales in two states to serious conversations about banking reform, there are many public policy issues that have remained largely untouched either in the public policy arena or in the mainstream by the year's new focus on ending prohibition.
One that is likely to impact users long after legalization occurs is the issue of employment for people who use medical marijuana. At present, under even the most permissive state laws where marijuana is legal for both medical and recreational use, employers (including of course the federal and state government) are allowed to fire workers for cause merely for finding traces of cannabinoids in their bloodstream. Zero tolerance hiring policies are obviously just as big a problem for those who use the drug medicinally.
An additional problem related to employment discrimination on this front that both medical and recreational users share, is the issue of criminal convictions. In a state like Illinois, with one of the highest rates of marijuana related arrests for mere (minor) possession, this is an area of criminal law where these two issues often meet. In Illinois the issue is particularly egregious right now as simple possession is not decriminalized yet as the state signs up its first "legal" medical users this fall. Nationwide the remnants of old laws as new systems are implemented also means that potential medical patients with any kind of non violent drug related convictions on their records could be banned from participation in even the state medical programs in the future.
On the employment front at least, this is a problem not unknown to Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, who just signed new legislation related to the issue last week. Last fall he made headlines nationwide by enabling those with criminal records to apply for state jobs. Last week he included private businesses with 15 or more employees. This makes Illinois only the fifth nation in the country to ban discrimination against applicants with criminal convictions in both the public and private sectors.
While unpopular with business, particularly small business, the Governor is only paying attention to national legal trends. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has now launched national cases against employers (both large and small from BMW to Dollar General) on this very issue.
The campaign is starting to go into high gear nationally in the aftermath of new heightened federal attention to the problem. In Georgia, Peachtree National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) Executive Director Sharon Ravert explained to MainStreet why she is now joining up with the national coalition which is being spearheaded by the national group 9 To 5. She is working for reform for professional reasons beyond those that drove her to start the regional chapter of NORML in the first place. Her daughter, a college sophomore at the time she founded the group, faced felony charges and prison time (for manufacturing and distribution) over a broken grow light, a glass pipe and one and a half grams of cannabis.
"I believe once we move forward in more states and counties this will change," Ravert said. "Many private companies are dealing with this in court and it will soon become too expensive for them to continue."
Ravert sees many people who are using the drug medically and then cannot get a job, even when well enough to work. Even with no criminal conviction.
"Discrimination is widespread everywhere," she said. "Many patients legally using cannabis therapeutics are still stigmatized and can lose their jobs during random drug testing. I believe that what you do in your private life should remain private, unless there is an issue with job performance."
In Georgia, the issue is continuing to get ongoing and high profile attention after the City of Atlanta became the first employer in Georgia to "ban the box" on employment applications doing away with the question about past criminal offenses in March 2013.
In Georgia, Ravert often sees people caught in a double bind being too sick to work unless they have access to medical marijuana, and then after accessing the same, being unable to find a job because of the medication that allows them to look in the first place.
"We actually discussed the issue as a piece of the puzzle in respect to harm reduction," Ravert said. "Having gainful employment is essential to bring folks out of poverty and they must be offered the opportunity after they pay their debt to society to find a job. "
Ravert also sees vets emerging as a large subgroup of people caught in this Catch-22, particularly those who use medical marijuana. For her this is a group with a major priority if not one of the most detrimentally impacted by current attitudes, prejudices and laws.
"It is time for us to trust the doctors and veterans when they say that it is often the only therapy that works for them," she said. "They served our country and kept us safe. We should do the same for them. The suicide rate is alarming and we must do whatever it takes. There is lots of work to do still."
When asked specifically about why she is targeting this area of reform in a year where few headlines about the issue do not contain the word, she answers easily with the practice of an advocate.
"Education and employment are essential in America," she said. "Once you are criminalized for cannabis use, your future prospects are marginal at best. Ban the Box is an integral part of the harm reduction model we work towards. I am thankful there is a large growing coalition working together on all aspects of ending mass incarceration and our War on Drugs. It has failed miserably and it is time for a smarter approach."
--Written by Marguerite Arnold for MainStreet