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State workers get new protections for medical marijuana use

The new law would not apply to certain occupations, including law enforcement and firefighters as well as other public safety officials.

NEW ORLEANS — Right now, there are more than 43,000 medical marijuana patients in Louisiana.

The number has expanded dramatically since the state authorized the smokeable version of the drug.

“Since the introduction of flower, our business has tripled almost and it’s growing continuously,” said Ruston Henry, owner of H&W Medical Marijuana Dispensary in New Orleans. “Flower makes it more available and more affordable.”

The state legislature is now scrambling to pass new laws to keep up with the growing popularity of the medication.

Lawmakers just passed a bill by Representative Mandie Landry, D-New Orleans, that would prohibit state agencies from firing workers who use the drug under a doctor’s recommendation.

Those employees would also be protected if they test positive on an initial screening for a job.

“We don’t have any protections for workers who have a medical marijuana prescription and it’s just kind of up in the air and each employer treats it differently,” Landry said.

The new law would not apply to certain occupations, including law enforcement and firefighters as well as other public safety officials.

“It doesn’t mean you can be high at work at all,” Landry said. “The language in the bill is very clear, just like you can’t be drunk at work.”

Jacques Berry, communications director for the Louisiana Department of Administration, said the proposed new law puts into statute a policy every state agency can use.

“We very much believe that the bill provided much needed medical marijuana policy to the state in terms of the employer,” Berry said. “It was important to get the basis of a policy in place. This legislation accomplished that.”

Louisiana Progress, a group that has pushed to relax state marijuana laws, helped draft the Landry bill.

“As our medical program continues to expand, everybody knows we’re dealing with more Louisianians who are part of this program and so, there’s just a practical aspect to this, that we need to figure these kinds of things out,” Louisiana Progress Executive Director Peter Robins-Brown said.

It’s a good first step Robins-Brown added.

“This is really dipping our toe in the water of starting to understand how that’s going to work in our state," he said.

Henry argues employers need to recognize medical marijuana is just that, medication.

“You wouldn’t penalize somebody if they were on anti-anxiety medicine, pain medication or psychotropic medications,” Henry said. “You wouldn’t penalize them for that, so why are you penalizing them for being on the medicine of medical marijuana?"

The bill passed through the House and Senate with rare bi-partisan support.

Rep. Landry hopes to propose future legislation to give private sector employees the same protections.

“I got a lot of help from on the medical marijuana bill and to me that shows we should really be optimistic about what’s going to happen because the help came from unexpected places and I think there’s a lot of people that are now convinced that it’s here to stay, we need to work on it," Landry said.

The bill now heads to Governor John Bel Edwards who can sign it, veto it, or let it become law without his signature.

The state legislative session must end no later than 6:00 p.m. on Monday.

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