Bernadette Coughlin lost her job for smoking marijuana in her free time, and then she got to work. Fired in May after a fall in the hospital kitchen where she worked led to a drug test, the occasional recreational pot user has spent the ensuing months pleading with lawmakers to fix an obvious problem with the state’s marijuana laws.
Cannabis is legal under state law, and the authorities have said they won’t be interested in enforcing federal laws still on the books. But many employers still have strict rules about weed. And since marijuana can show up in drug tests weeks after use, someone like Coughlin — whose fall at the end of her shift plainly had nothing to do with off-hours marijuana use — can easily end up jobless for something akin to a post-work glass of wine at any point in the last month.
“We need to figure out a way forward with this,” said state Senator Barbara L’Italien, who attempted to add an amendment to a recent opioid bill that would have provided some legal protections for people in Coughlin’s circumstance.
The amendment L’Italien proposed went nowhere, and she said it was clear there was “no appetite to address this issue.”
That did not dissuade Coughlin, who with her husband, Mike, has been inundating the offices of officials with calls and e-mails. She has a pending arbitration claim against Sodexo, the multinational corporation that provides food services at Holy Family Hospital in Methuen, where Coughlin worked. The case, said Coughlin’s lawyer, David Hadas, hinges in part on whether Sodexo violated her privacy by drug-testing her nearly a full week after the fall even though there was nothing to suggest she’d been impaired.
On Tuesday, the Coughlins met with Steve Hoffman, chairman of the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission.
“I feel badly for what’s happened to her,” Hoffman said. While the commission is tasked with other aspects of marijuana legalization, and current law clearly gives employers the ability to restrict recreational use, he said employee protections are something the Legislature might want to consider.
He said he wasn’t aware of similar cases in Massachusetts, but nationally, as more and more states legalize marijuana use, “I can’t imagine this is the first time this has arisen.”
It’s not. In 2015, an Oregon television anchor was fired under circumstances similar to Coughlin’s. In 2010, a customer service worker for a satellite TV provider in Colorado was fired after testing positive, even though he had a medical marijuana card. (Under Massachusetts state law, medical marijuana cardholders enjoy some employment protections.)
A workplace that drew such a hard line on alcohol might have a hard time finding employees, because the idea of a glass of wine or a beer after work is enshrined not in our laws but in our culture. Marijuana use will almost certainly be afforded the same implicit protections one day, but it would probably take a lot more Bernadette Coughlins losing their jobs before we got there. Legislation would speed up a market process that history suggests is inevitable, and save the jobs of a lot of people who haven’t done anything wrong.
A new bipartisan bill in the House of Representatives would prohibit federal agencies from denying or terminating the employment of civil servants in states where marijuana has been made legal. But that would protect only federal employees — a bitter irony, since federal marijuana law is one of the reasons companies like Sodexo have draconian marijuana policies on their books now anyway.
Democratic Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and Colorado Republican Senator Corey Gardner introduced a bill to require the federal government to honor state laws regarding marijuana. Neither federal bill would protect people like Coughlin.
For Coughlin, who broke her arm in the fall and is set to begin physical therapy, the termination was life-altering. With the job went her salary, of course, but also her benefits. Initially, she said, it appeared Sodexo would contest her workers’ compensation claim, too. But after a Globe story in June, a check showed up. Now, workers’ compensation is covering some of her lost wages and medical costs associated with the fall.
At 55, she had envisioned working at the hospital until retirement. Her most recent performance review was glowing. But now she’s begun applying for jobs. “I’m a little nervous about that . . . Who’s going to hire me?” she said. Pretty soon, we’ll be wondering why anybody wouldn’t.
Nestor Ramos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.