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Firefighters Are The Only City Employees Explicitly Allowed To Use Medical Marijuana

Sarah Kovash
90.5 WESA
A firefighter participates in a training drill at the training facilities on Washington Boulevard.

Since medical marijuana passed in Pennsylvania in 2016, only one labor union has come to an agreement with the city to allow employees to obtain medical marijuana cards: Pittsburgh firefighters.

That agreement was reached last month.

Ralph Sicuro, president of the Pittsburgh Fire Fighters Local No. 1, said the union advocated for access to medical marijuana because many firefighters suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, a qualifying condition under the state's medical marijuana law. Sicuro said it can also serve as an alternative to opioids for firefighters who get injured.

"If we can reduce the potential for opioid addiction within our own group, I felt like that's something we needed to do," Sicuro said.

After coming to the city with the request, Sicuro said the fire union was asked to research the policies of other fire departments in medical and recreational marijuana states. He said they saw a range; some departments eliminated marijuana as part of drug tests, but in other circumstances, the conditions that would qualify someone for a medical marijuana card disqualified them from being a firefighter.

The union's agreement with the city includes a provision that firefighters cannot be under the influence while on duty.

"No matter what medication you're talking about, whether its an opioid or marijuana, we do not support anybody being under the influence while at work," Sicuro said.

Pittsburgh's Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich said the Fire Department now treats medical marijuana essentially the same way as alcohol.

"We rely on a lieutenant or captain or battalion chief to, at the beginning of each shift, adequately determine whether that firefighter is impaired," Hissrich said. 

Pittsburgh's Director of Human Resources Janet Manuel said she doesn't know how many firefighters have medical marijuana cards, due to privacy laws. The card is registered with a doctor before a firefighter uses for the first time in case they take a drug test.

Manuel said most city departments, including hers, don't do random drug tests on employees.

"So in the Department of Human Resources there's no such thing as random drug testing," Manuel said. "But if there is reasonable suspicion then I as the director have that right to send that person out for testing."

However, departments within Public Safety have different rules. For the Fire Department, a batch of employees chosen at random each month are required to take a test.

A spokesman for Mayor Bill Peduto's administation said it supports the use of medical marijuana to treat pain and other conditions, and that it is open to working on similar agreements with other employee unions.

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