How Recent Marijuana Legislation Could Affect Fire Department PolicyNov. 19, 2012 by Dominick Swinhart in Mutual Aid
Amidst the fervor of the race for president, voters quietly weighed in on two state initiatives (although they're getting more press now that national elections have quieted down).
In Washington, voters considered I-502, the so-called "marijuana reform" initiative. Medical marijuana has been legal in the state for years; this initiative would completely legalization of the drug. The state would be allowed to tax and sell it, and anyone over the age of 21 could buy it. If passed, marijuana theoretically would be no more difficult to buy than alcohol.
In the months leading up to the election, opponents bought ads in newspapers and on television that warned of catastrophic societal impacts if the law was passed. The voters of Washington apparently didn't believe it, and on Nov. 6, they approved the law by a wide margin. Colorado voters passed a similar law on election night.
Since election night, I've received several e-mails from colleagues around the country wondering how our department is going to implement strict restrictions on marijuana usage among firefighters now that its use is legal by state law. The simple answer is we aren't and we have no plans to.
In discussing the potential impact with our human-resources department, it's likely we'll treat firefighter marijuana use the same we do alcohol. As long as you're not letting it affect your job, getting in to legal trouble because of it, or showing up to work under the influence, there's likely no issue my administration or municipality is going to have with it. The voters have said it's to be treated no differently than alcohol, so why should I?
Also, it's quite unlikely we could create a policy to ban something that's completely legal outside the walls of the fire station. We could certainly tell them they can't do it on duty (just like alcohol), but once they go home they fall under societal laws. I'm told there could be an issue with employees who require a commercial driver's license and marijuana usage due to federal regulations, but firefighters in Washington aren't required to have one, so this won't be an issue in our department.
We're still in a little bit of an unknown period right now in Washington before the law takes effect. Marijuana still is illegal under federal law. Most observers agree, however, that while the federal government could likely take down sellers if they wanted to, they can't force the state to arrest and prosecute users. Indeed prosecutors around the state are beginning to drop most pending marijuana possession cases and have indicated they won't accept any more so long as the possession meets state law.
Some national pundits are saying this movement by Colorado and Washington could slowly transform marijuana laws across the entire country. Fire chiefs around the country should be prepared if a movement begins in your state. We don't plan on changing the way we do business or placing more restrictions on our firefighters. What would you do?
Dominick Swinhart is the fire chief of the Camas-Washougal Fire Department in Camas, Wash.