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Even with legal cannabis, Georgians fear losing jobs — for good reason

Sometimes, when Cahmbriel Clackum gets home from night shifts at the hospital, her spine hurts bad enough she just sits in the car for a while, afraid to move.

“I have to convince myself to get up because the pain is so bad,” the Cobb County native, a vital signs monitor tech, said recently. She had just had a particularly bad morning, unable to sleep because of a cruel radiating sensation creeping up her back into her neck. She tossed for hours, worried that the pain, more intense than normal, was revealing some new problem.

Clackum, who’s been in health care more than a decade, doesn’t take opioids because she’s seen the deadly consequences. Like many Georgians, she’s been afraid to try medical marijuana, the one thing she believes could safely free her from this hamstrung life. Under state law, she could legally use oil derived from cannabis — the scientific name for marijuana — but she knows there’s nothing to stop an employer from firing her over it.

Cahmbriel Clackum

Workers in various trades across Georgia are frustrated by the friction between the law allowing the use of cannabis oil and other laws that allows employers to fire workers for using the drug because it’s federally illegal. Many residents fear losing jobs or not being able to get one if they fail a drug screening test. During the 2019 legislative session, lawmakers intend to search for a way to satisfy employers and protect patients who are following state law while still performing their jobs well.

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“We hear almost every week from someone who is concerned about potential employment issues,” said state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon. The legislator led the push for Georgia to legalize cannabis oil with only low amounts of THC, the constituent that gives the user a high.

Peake said he’s heard push back from some business leaders who want to run “drug-free” workplaces and are afraid about employees coming to work impaired, even though the oil has little THC. Peake, who’s retiring at the end of the year, is encouraging colleagues in the Gold Dome to not give up on finding a solution. The best idea Peake has come up with is for legislators to pass a bill requiring companies that want to fire an employee to prove medical marijuana caused the worker to be impaired on the job.

A 2018 survey by the employee screening firm HireRight found that 63 percent of employers it works with conduct drug tests; 38 percent don’t allow the use of medical marijuana; 17 percent allow it only on a case-by-case basis; and 33 percent have no policy. Many companies are growing more tolerant, but employers aren’t keeping pace with the states that are allowing more access to the medicine, HireRight found.

In 2015, the National Institute of Health issued guidance for American hospitals, urging them to come up with policies on medical marijuana use for employees. The guidance said hospitals could chose whether to allow workers to use the medicine as long as it doesn’t affect the work or to bar them from using it on or off the clock. In Georgia, the majority of hospitals drug test as a condition of hiring and randomly screen employees, according to the Georgia Hospital Association.

Clackum said the hospitals she’s worked at don’t allow medical marijuana use.

Feb. 20 2017 - Atlanta - Rep. Allen Peake holds a bottle of cannibis oil. (BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM)

State Rep. Micah Gravley, a Republican co-chairman of a committee studying changes to Georgia’s medical marijuana laws, said he intends to search for a fix to the employment issue during the 2019 legislative session, though he isn’t sure what the solution could look like yet.

“I think we have to at least try to address it,” he said. “The medical cannabis oil is, in my opinion, a safer option from some of the drugs these people are having to take.”

Whatever state lawmakers do, they may run afoul of federal law allowing workplace drug testing and deeming marijuana illegal in all forms. Gravley hopes U.S. lawmakers will clear the way for new leniency from employers. Congress could do that by acknowledging the potential of cannabis and removing it from the list of Schedule 1 drugs, which the government claims have no medical benefits and a high potential for abuse.

For Clackum, such hope is nice. But with no guarantees, she decided to do something drastic.

‘Injustice’

Clackum — who is in her thirties, single and loves to write historical fiction on the Revolutionary War — said multiple relatives have had spinal issues. For her, the inherited problems were exacerbated by years of heavy lifting, both at work and in recreation. By 2013, while living in Ellijay, she had surgery to improve her ability to walk. The operation helped with mobility, but the hurt didn’t stop.

In 2014, she kept up with Peake’s fight in the Georgia capitol to make cannabis oil available for medical use. Peake’s legislation failed that year, only to pass the next year with one glaring hole: the one that says you can possess the oil but not buy it.

Clackum remembers feeling taken aback that her home state could do no better in helping residents use a medicine she sees as “not only harmless but helpful.” She calls it an “injustice.”

Since the law passed, the list of approved uses for the oil in Georgia has been expanded to include chronic pain, like Clackum’s.

According to the state health department, more than 7,400 Georgians have obtained a state-issued card the law requires for them to possess cannabis oil. While many residents have found ways to get the oil, Clackum knew she couldn’t join them because of her job.

Meanwhile, pain hurts her in so many ways.

She used to have hair down to her waist, but she had to cut it off because the weight hurt her neck. The pain plunged her into a deep, long depression at least once. It makes her tired. It leads her to take ibuprofen way too much, possibly damaging her liver. It keeps her from exercising in some of the more intensive ways she’d like to, such as weightlifting and running. It even makes writing hard since she can only sit at the keyboard so long.

Last December, she decided she had to make a change. She left Georgia.

Fighting a nightmare with a dream

In Newport News, Va., she still works at a hospital and fears being fired for using medical marijuana. But Clackum moved there with hopes of starting her own business, which is a dream but also a way to be her own boss and not worry what anyone thinks of her medicine.

The company, which she plans to open next year, will offer tours around Yorktown, the site of the last battle of the Revolutionary War on American soil. For as long as she can remember, she’s been obsessed with the war. She’s decorated her apartment with Revolutionary War collectibles, including portraits of key figures such as battle legend Daniel Morgan, cavalry officer William Washington and Major Gen. Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee III. People of strength who beat great odds.

One recent morning, Clackum was fighting her own battle. She tossed and tossed in bed, worried and hurting. Finally, she went to YouTube and looked up a song called “Weightless.” It’s 10-hours long, a droning ethereal piece composed for relaxation with just one chord: a D minor, which is both mournful and soothing.

At some point, she drifted away.

When she woke up, she was soon back to work on the business plan, the pain motivating her.

The bill expanded the number of disorders covered under the original medical marijuana law.

Conditions covered by Georgia’s law

Georgia’s medical marijuana program allows possession of a low THC oil form of the medication for patients with the following conditions:

  • Cancer, end stage or if the treatment produces related wasting illness or recalcitrant nausea and vomiting
  • Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, when such diagnosis is severe or end stage
  • Seizure disorders related to diagnosis of epilepsy or trauma related head injuries
  • Multiple sclerosis, when such diagnosis is severe or end stage
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Mitochondrial disease
  • Parkinson’s disease, when such diagnosis is severe or end stage
  • Sickle cell disease, when such diagnosis is severe or end stage
  • Tourette’s syndrome, when such syndrome is diagnosed as severe
  • Autism spectrum disorder, when the patient is 18 or older, or less than 18 years old and diagnosed with severe autism
  • Epidermolysis bullosa
  • Alzheimer’s disease, when such disease is severe or end stage
  • AIDS when such syndrome is severe or end stage
  • Peripheral neuropathy, when symptoms are severe or end stage
  • Patient is in hospice program, either as inpatient or outpatient
  • Intractable pain
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from direct exposure to or witnessing of a trauma for a patient who is at least 18 years of age

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