February 17, 2023

Bill advances to let firefighters use medical cannabis off-duty

By Daniel J. Chacón, The Santa Fe New Mexican

A bill to make it easier for New Mexico firefighters to use medical marijuana legally got off to a hot start Friday.

House Bill 292 would narrow the definition of “safety-sensitive position” in the Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act, which governs the state’s medical cannabis program.

As proposed, the definition would only include employees who are required to carry a firearm or operate a vehicle with a commercial driver’s license and “whose performance under the influence of drugs or alcohol would constitute an immediate or direct threat of injury or death to the person or another.” State law currently defines a “safety-sensitive position” ineligible for the medical cannabis program more broadly, barring firefighters from using medical cannabis without their employer’s permission.

Miguel Tittmann, who represents about 900 firefighters in Albuquerque and Bernalillo County as president of Local 244 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, told the House Health and Human Services Committee the proposal “is not a firefighter bill.”

“It will affect a lot more employees in the state than just firefighters, but … it’ll positively affect our population so much,” said Tittmann, who testified as an expert witness.

The committee advanced the bill 6-2 amid blunt, burning questions from Republican lawmakers.

Rep. Harlan Vincent, R-Glencoe, who retired as chief of the Ruidoso Fire Department in 2016, questioned how fire departments would be able to find a baseline for cannabis that firefighters would be able to use since people metabolize the drug differently.

“It’s hard for me to have this conversation because in my former career, I took safety very, very seriously,” he said. “If somebody called 911 and they were having a heart attack, I want my people dialed in, razor sharp, and to give that person in our community every possible chance that they have to survive.”

Tittmann said New Mexico doesn’t have to “reinvent the wheel.”

“There are many departments out there, including Vancouver, Pittsburgh, New York City Fire Department, that have already done this,” he said.

“We both share in the importance of being razor sharp in a safety-sensitive position,” he added. “I don’t think this has anything to do with impairment on the job. Just like alcohol, we have to not drink a certain amount of alcohol so many hours prior to our shift starts. There will be the same level of meticulousness to address that safety issue.”

Tittmann said there are blood tests that recognize marijuana use within four hours. He also said agencies don’t have to change their substance use policies as a result of the proposed revision.

“This is going to be an ongoing conversation of how we can allow our membership that have been diagnosed with PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], that have been prescribed medical marijuana for the ailments that they have, to be able to use it in a responsible way on their days off,” he said.

Tittmann emphasized the proposal is “specific to medical marijuana prescribed by a medical doctor” and doesn’t deal with recreational marijuana.

“In our population, that happens to be PTSD, quite often, because of the trauma saturation that our firefighters see over a 25-year career,” he said.

Tittman said firefighters also suffer from sleep deprivation and work a lot of overtime.

“We use alcohol to cope,” he said. “It’s historically part of the culture in the fire service and has almost been normalized. But we’ve also lost many firefighters to suicide, to DUI, and to lots of other things because of the overuse of alcohol.”

Committee Chairwoman Rep. Liz Thomson, an Albuquerque Democrat who is one of the sponsors of the bill, said the proposal was initiated by a friend of a friend who is a firefighter.

“We talked about PTSD and how it was pretty much inevitable doing those kinds of jobs,” she said. “It’s going to be tough on the psyche, and he asked if we could include cannabis for some firefighters.”

Thomson said she was struck when he told her firefighters are encouraged by their supervisors to drink alcohol to deal with the stress. In an interview, Thomson said “everybody demonizes cannabis,” but it’s “less dangerous” when compared to alcohol.

The firefighter who initiated the proposal “told me if you don’t have PTSD your first year, you will by the second,” Thomson said. “Someone else told me if you don’t have it by the first day, you will by the second, and I can truly see that, so we’re just trying to give them another option to deal with the traumas that they see every day without it being alcohol.”

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.