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Pittsburgh could shield medical marijuana patients from employer drug testing

City Councilor Barb Warwick stands behind a podium.
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
City Councilor Barb Warwick stood with medical marijuana advocates Tuesday to unveil legislation to protect card holders.

Pittsburgh City Council may consider new labor protections for medical marijuana patients. A bill introduced Tuesday would prohibit employers from requiring people to be tested for marijuana if they have a prescription for it.

City Councilor Barb Warwick, who is sponsoring the bill, said those who are prescribed the drug are often unfairly penalized for taking it.

"Medical marijuana cardholders in the City of Pittsburgh have taken the time to secure legal permission from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to use cannabis to treat a medical condition,” Warwick said. “Excluding them from employment opportunities because of their medical condition is unfair and discriminatory."

Pennsylvania’s Medical Marijuana Act was signed by former Gov. Tom Wolf in 2016: That same year, Pittsburgh decriminalized possession of a small amount of marijuana. Dispensaries began selling products to qualified patients in 2018. Three years later, the state expanded the list of medical conditions that qualify for the drug's use in treatment.

But many employers have not updated their drug testing requirements to accommodate legal uses of marijuana. Warwick argues that has created an unnecessary barrier for patients.

“They are still unable in many cases to get work because of that,” Warwick said. “That’s discrimination [and] we wouldn’t do that for any other medical issue.”

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The bill would add medical marijuana patients as a protected class under Pittsburgh's city code. That would grant them protections like those that currently guard against discrimination based on race, gender or sexual orientation.

The bill does not require employers to allow patients to consume marijuana at the workplace. And it does have some exceptions: Employers could still test workers who use commercial driver’s licenses, for example, or who carry firearms for work.

Also excluded are jobs whose operations are regulated by state laws that govern the handling of chemicals, high-voltage electricity and other utilities. A patient may not operate such machinery with a blood content of more than 10 nanograms of active tetrahydrocannabis (THC) per milliliter of blood.

And though the bill prohibits random testing of employees, it doesn’t block employers from ever testing for use of marijuana. It allows employers to require a test after a workplace accident, or to carry out testing if an employee is clearly under the influence while on the job.

“There are guidelines for when you can and can’t use [marijuana],” Warwick noted. “Those guidelines and recommendations hold the same here.”

At a press conference Tuesday, Warwick was joined by advocates who argued that marijuana has made it easier for patients with chronic pain and other conditions to continue to work — and they shouldn’t be punished for using it.

Ralph Sicuro, president of the Pittsburgh firefighter’s union, worked with the city to update its own marijuana drug-testing policies to exclude medical card holders. Sicuro noted that firefighters are at an increased risk for certain qualifying medical conditions including cancer, post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety.

“The use of medical marijuana offers a viable and effective alternative treatment for these serious medical conditions, providing necessary relief and improved quality of life for those affected by these conditions,” he said.

Saundra Cole-McKamey, founder of the nonprofit People of Origin Rightfully Loved And Wanted, lives in Hazelwood. She said despite increasing development in her neighborhood, residents are still struggling to find work due to marijuana drug testing.

“A lot of our people … are dealing with mental health [issues]” that are treated with marijuana, she said. “It’s affecting people in my community from getting those jobs.”

Theresa Nightingale, regional manager of corporate social responsibility at Cresco labs and executive director of Pittsburgh NORML, argued that the majority of Pennsylvania’s marijuana card holders use the drug because of serious qualifying medical conditions, “not because they like getting high.”

“Many of these patients are seniors, low-income and middle-class Pennsylvanians,” she said. “Being able to provide for their families is integral to their survival. [It’s] discriminatory to deny them employment based on their medical conditions.”

If the bill passes, the city would enforce the new protections through the city’s Commission on Human Relations, which administers the city's other anti-discrimination rules.

Updated: July 9, 2024 at 10:52 AM EDT
This story has been updated with details from the press conference.
Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.