While Oklahoma now has more than 200,000 licensed medical cannabis patients, much of last century’s stigma still remains attached to its use.
Despite their defeat at the polls last June, the forces behind the 788 Is Not Medical campaign have used their positions of influence to help deny cannabis users full participation in society. Whether impaired or not, cannabis users cannot legally drive (in virtue of our DUI laws). Employers can designate nearly any job as “safety-sensitive” and purge cannabis users from their employ. Public housing authorities and their landlords almost uniformly deny benefits to cannabis users (despite the discretion that the federal government gives to local authorities). Physicians, including most pain management doctors and oncologists, refuse cannabis users medical treatment. And the list goes on.
Even though there are numerous studies that not only establish its medical benefits but also link many autoimmune and neuropathic conditions to endocannanbinoid deficiencies, employers, physicians, schools and a host of other entities in our state choose instead to regard cannabis use as a moral failing or perhaps a sign of one’s political leanings rather than a treatment for physiological disorders, a treatment that was, long before cannabis was ever associated with “race mixing” in the 1930s or “hippies” in the 1960s, perfectly acceptable to the medical profession.
For thousands of years, it was used across much of the globe, and by the mid-19th century, it became a staple of medical care in the United States. But with the end of alcohol prohibition in 1933, Harry J. Anslinger of the Federal Bureau of Prohibition had to find a new mission or be out of a job. He thus latched on to “marihuana,” persuading Congress to ban it under the pretext that it “causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negros.”
Then, 30 years later, as the federal government was drafting the Controlled Substances Act and assembling its list of drugs that had “no currently accepted medical use in the United States,” cannabis was, by then, no longer being prescribed by physicians. Yet that was not due to a lack of efficacy or safety but because of Anslinger’s efforts a generation prior. In fact, just as the American Medical Association fervently opposed its ban in 1937, so likewise did the medical advisors for the Controlled Substances Act in 1970 recommend that it not be made Schedule 1. But in both cases, they were overruled by politicians, and so rather than medical science shaping public policy, the people of this nation became victims of a system of laws borne out of wanton ignorance, bigotry and hate.
If not for the racism of Harry J. Anslinger and Richard Nixon’s hatred of the political left, it is hard to imagine anything of this sort ever happening. But it did. Knowledge of its medical benefits was actively suppressed by the DEA, and the lives of tens of millions of Americans were destroyed by a government whose treatment of them hardly differed from the communists who sent counter-revolutionaries to gulags.
For while we never went so far as to sentence cannabis users to death, we nevertheless annually arrested them by the millions and handed out extreme prison sentences in droves. All this because cannabis use came to be linked first with racial mixing and second with a youth movement that challenged establishment ideology. The danger, in other words, was not cannabis as such. It was that it came to be seen as an instrument of rebellion against the authority of the state, a choice on the part of citizens to control their own medical care and free themselves from the commodification of their bodies.
Thankfully, this dark chapter of history is behind us. But while medical cannabis use will no longer deprive you of your liberty, its users continue to suffer discrimination: employees fired, drivers’ licenses suspended, public benefits denied, probation revoked, custody denied and medical care withheld.
The rationales given for such sanctions are usually: a) it is required by federal law or b) cannabis use impairs cognitive performance. We may grant that both are sometimes true. But consider that standard workplace drug tests do not detect active impairment but rather the non-psychoactive metabolite THC-COOH, which can remain in one’s system for up to 90 days. Consider as well that in December 2018, the Controlled Substances Act was amended (see section 12619 of the 2018 Farm Bill), removing hemp-derived THC from Schedule 1. In fact, studies indicate that proper dosing of THC can improve cognitive performance for people with certain underlying conditions (such as ADHD) as well as through improvements in sleep quality, pain, anxiety and depression.
Nevertheless, employers routinely terminate THC-positive employees (or reject applicants on this basis) even if they only use federally legal products or only use THC during their off hours. Moreover, because of the aforementioned change in the Controlled Substances Act, employers can now be fully compliant with the Federal Drug-Free Workplace Act while allowing THC-positive employees to remain at their jobs. Likewise, any employer concerned about workplace safety, after-hours cannabis use not only does not jeopardize that safety but might even enhance it since many individuals use THC to improve their sleep quality and fatigue is far and away the leading cause of workplace accidents.
Granted, some employers might not know any of the above. They might assume that a positive test equates with impairment. They might not realize that federal law has recently changed. But it seems to me that many employers also do not want to reconsider their views. Industry coalitions and the state chambers of commerce didn’t merely call for the completely reasonable use of impairment tests for safety-sensitive jobs but rather lobbied our lawmakers to let employers deny employment to anyone who tests positive for THC, regardless of whether the employee only uses products during their off hours, regardless of whether they are in no way impaired at work and regardless of the recent changes to the Controlled Substances Act.
For while most employers would have no trouble believing that their employees can drink on the weekend but come to work sober or use Ambien for sleep but come to work completely alert, it seems that they do not care to believe the same about cannabis use. Perhaps their default view is that cannabis users are addicts and so there is no reason to presume that their use is limited to outside work. Perhaps they believe cannabis use equates with a moral failing. Perhaps they regard themselves as sentinels of a political ideology that still associates cannabis use with the counterculture of the 1960s or the “race mixing” targeted by Anslinger.
For once it is realized that standard workplace THC tests in no way correlate with impairment, employment actions taken on the basis of these tests indicate that the employer simply finds any THC use whatsoever unacceptable. Hence, while the forces behind 788 Is Not Medical can no longer send cannabis users to jail, they can at least keep them out of their places of employment, off their roads, out of their housing, out of their medical practices and deny them benefits under their control.
No doubt there are some not so virtuous people who are also cannabis users, but the hallmark of bigotry is to believe in negative stereotypes rather than seeing members of a group as individuals. To be fair, some of those behind our new system of discrimination are not bigots. Some simply don’t know the facts, and some wish they could grant cannabis users equal rights but worry about being ostracized by other members of their business community. After all, if one business views cannabis users as vile or untrustworthy, why would they want to do business with a company that has such individuals in their employ? This, sadly, is the social-reinforcing dynamic of bigotry, for many who want to oppose it feel that such efforts would come at too high a cost or that there is nothing they themselves could to do to realize change.
The passage of State Question 788 is an important moment of progress, but as of today, cannabis use might result in the loss of your drivers’ license, your job, your housing and your medical care. This is wrong, and this is also something that many patient licensees are not told and do not discover until it is too late.
The forces behind 788 Is Not Medical might have lost the vote but have nevertheless succeeded in sending the message that anyone who gets a medical license shall pay a heavy price. So while other states and countries are moving past cannabis bigotry and have implemented laws that prohibit employers from taking adverse employment action solely on the basis of a THC test, we need our Legislature in the next session to recognize what has happened since the passage of SQ788 and stand against wanton ignorance, bigotry and hate.
Lawrence Pasternack, Ph.D. is a patient advocate and one of the founders of Oklahoma Cannabis Liberty Alliance (okcla.org). He is also among the world’s leading specialists in Immanuel Kant’s philosophy of religion. Dr. Pasternack is a professor of philosophy and the director of the religious studies program at Oklahoma State University. The views here do not necessarily represent those of OSU.