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Cannabis Law Reform: Firing an Employee for using Medical Cannabis Justified?

The bill was passed after Samuel E. Velez Ortiz, a correction officer was fired due to positive cannabis use detected in a drug test in 2021.

The Act known as the Public Employee Protection Act (SB 166) was filled by South Florida Democratic State Sen. Tina Polsky after Ortiz’s plea against termination in State courts along with a similar proposal for all medical cannabis patients, but the current Act has been limited to workers under state agencies.

The Bill

The Bill would allow state employees to be pardoned for using marijuana for medical purposes. It would safeguard the employees against ‘adverse employment action’ when an employee or an applicant is a qualified medical patient for the use of Marijuana.

The Background 

Velez Ortiz was a Florida Department of Corrections officer, who was fired for using Marijuana when he tested positive. marijuana usage on duty while carrying a licensed gun. He was approved to use medical Marijuana by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in 2013 as a treatment for his post-traumatic stress disorder due to previous military service, according to the documents filed.

A three-judge panel of the 1st District Court rejected his plea, firing him under the Department of Corrections “zero tolerance” policy. The ruling was written by Judge Clay Roberts, joined by Judges Stephanine Ray and M. Kemmerer Thomas which mentioned the regular use of Marijuana for treating his PTSD as illegal under federal law even after it was legal under state law. 

The Sheriffs Association also filed against the Court’s decision along with Velez Ortiz describing it as a “first impression” case in Florida implying that such issues were not considered previously.

In 2022, Velez Ortiz’s attorney, Michael Minardi, defended him under the 2016 state constitutional amendment as he did not the Marijuana while on duty. His attorneys also stated the fact that he was using Marijuana for over 3 years but not a single complaint was filed against his performance.

The Department of Corrections acknowledged the fact that the drug test was random and not related to Ortiz’s dedication towards his duty when the department was aware of his medical Marijuana card since 2018. 

After he was denied any relief from the First District Court last year, he has now appealed his case to the Florida Supreme Court. The proceedings are being carried on. Polsky’s proposal also states that the agencies can take action against an employee if their work is being affected, which has been ruled out in Ortiz’s case.

The effect 

With the ongoing proceedings of Ortiz’s case, Medical Marijuana has now been legal in 38 states with half of them having policies to address the fair use of medical cannabis for patients according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Chris Cano, the Executive director of Suncoast National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, now also serves on the NORM national board. He stated that although he supported the legislation, he was doubtful of the Republican-controlled Legislature, who have continued to discriminate against nearly 1 million medical Marijuana patients.

The next legislative proceeding is due Jan 9, which will decide the future of many other discriminated medical cannabis users like Ortiz. The bill, if approved would protect the employee’s termination. 

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