Benton County officials have started work on employment policies to reflect the state’s recently approved medical marijuana amendment and resulting legislation.
Barb Ludwig, human resources administrator, said the county is looking at changes to the personnel policy to mirror Act 593 of 2017, which was meant to clarify the employment provisions of the amendment.
“We’ve attended several seminars — myself, my benefits person and the comptroller — and every speaker has recommended we get our policies in line with the amendment,” Ludwig said.
Arkansas voters approved a constitutional amendment in November legalizing medical marijuana use. The state plans to start to take license applications for shops to distribute marijuana products and cultivation facilities in July. The first products are expected to be sold before January, as production gets under way, according to an estimate from the state Department of Finance and Administration.
Ludwig briefed the Personnel Committee on proposed changes to the employee manual to clarify the policy and respond to the medical marijuana law. The policy reiterates the county’s stance as a drug-free workplace and bars any employee from being “under the influence of medical marijuana in the workplace.” Employees in security or safety sensitive positions and those who handle sensitive or confidential information “are prohibited from using marijuana.”
The policy provides for drug testing if an elected official suspects an employee has used medical marijuana and “if the test shows a positive result, the employee will be terminated.”
The new policy generated some debate and disagreement during the presentation at the Personnel Committee meeting last week. Michelle Chiocco, justice of the peace, believes the county needs to provide alternatives to firing employees who use marijuana for genuine medical issues.
“We’re basically putting them out of work if we leave it the way it is,” Chiocco said of the policy. “They should be able to put them in the temp pool or put them in another department.”
County Judge Barry Moehring said provisions in the law barring employees in safety or sensitive areas from using marijuana make sense to him as a public safety issue. Employees who handle firearms, operate heavy equipment, drive county vehicles or have access to sensitive information have to be regulated more strictly, he said.
“For the benefit of the public, there has to be a line drawn,” Moehring said. “You can’t work in these jobs and use medical marijuana.”
Medical marijuana should be treated as just that, a medical treatment for an illness or chronic condition, Chiocco said. The county doesn’t automatically fire someone who uses medication prescribed by a doctor even though many medications may have side effects similar to medical marijuana, she said. The county shouldn’t treat employees on medication in different ways, she said.
“That’s dealing with someone’s life,” she said.
George Spence, county attorney, said the medical marijuana law is new and will likely remain “fluid” for some time.
“We’re going to comply with the law as best we understand it,” Spence said. “The statute will probably be developing over time, then there will be cases decided over time. No matter how good a job we do now it’s something we may need to come back to as things develop through case law.”
Chiocco is concerned by treating medical marijuana differently than other legal drugs the county could find itself embroiled in legal challenges to its policies.
“I’d rather not get it challenged here.” she said.
Brent Meyers, justice of the peace, said he opposed the medical marijuana amendment and he’s personally opposed to any use of marijuana by any employee.
“I do think it’s a gateway drug,” Meyers said. “I’ve seen it destroy families, and I think when you legalize it, it will become more easily available to the youth. It’s another drug in the market we don’t need.”
Meyers said he won’t go against state law, although he pointed out marijuana is still illegal under federal law.
“I’d have to go along with anything that copies state law,” Meyers said. “I don’t think we should legalize it. But I was able to vote and the way I voted was defeated.”
Ludwig will bring the policy back to the Personnel Committee before offering it to the full Quorum Court, possibly in July. To approve an ordinance incorporating the policy will require the Quorum Court to read the ordinance at three separate meetings before voting to approve it.
The county will do whatever is needed to comply with the new law, Moehring said.
“At the end of the day, the voters have spoken,” he said. “Medical marijuana is the law of the land and we’re going to have to accommodate it.”