Austin public safety job candidates disqualified for legal marijuana use

Austin’s Public Safety Committee has asked city departments to reevaluate their hiring policies when it comes to marijuana use.

Recently, an applicant to Austin-Travis County EMS was disqualified for having used marijuana in his home state where the drug is currently legal by state law.

18 states in the U.S. have legalized recreational marijuana, with even more allowing some form of medical use. Even Texas recently expanded the law by allowing medical marijuana to be used by those with cancer or PTSD who have a prescription. But hiring policies at public safety agencies in Austin still follow the Federal Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988.

"You cannot use illegal substances or drugs, including marijuana, within the last three years. And that’s a check yes or no on that application process," said ATCEMS interim Chief Jasper Brown.

"So let’s say you live in Texas, you have PTSD, you use THC, you apply to work for ATCEMS, the fire department, you would be disqualified currently for having PTSD," said Selena Xie, president of the Austin EMS Association.

"It just doesn’t seem right and, when I look at the EMS application, it says ‘have you illegally used a controlled substance before’ and the fact of the matter is, as far as I can tell, he didn’t illegally use it," said Austin City Council member Greg Casar (District 4).

"It does not distinguish whether it’s legal in the state or not. It is a federal class-one drug and it’s still considered an illegal drug by the federal government," Brown said.

With 90 current vacancies at ATCEMS, Casar worries those hiring policies could be deterring otherwise-qualified candidates. That’s why he and the Public Safety Committee asked Austin public safety agencies to review their stance on marijuana use and consider how other states and cities are handling it.

"I don’t wanna punish a young person who is looking for a career at Austin EMS, when we so badly need medics, if they didn’t do anything wrong, if they didn’t do anything illegal, didn’t hurt anybody," said Casar.

Brown is reviewing ATCEMS policies and those of other EMS agencies in the country. However, he said there is still no way to determine someone’s level of impairment if they test positive for THC. And it’s unclear if allowing marijuana use off the job for certain conditions would impact their Drug Enforcement Agency license, which allows medics to carry controlled substances for patients.

Casar said he has reached out to Chief Brown directly to ask that the disqualified candidate be reconsidered. "I’ve asked for a review to go back and look and see whether or not he actually did anything wrong, because, when I look at it, it’s pretty hard for me or anybody else to point out what he did wrong in this process," said Casar.

"I told him I’d go back and review the situation, and I feel confident and comfortable with the decision that was currently made," Brown said.

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