Fired physician's assistant sues Presbyterian Healthcare Services over medical marijuana use

A New Mexico physician's assistant who also is a medical marijuana patient says one of the state's largest health care providers violated her rights when it fired her following a positive drug test.

Donna Smith is the latest medical marijuana patient to go to court to seek protections for workers who have been fired due to their participation in the state's medical marijuana program. She filed her lawsuit against Presbyterian Healthcare Services in state district court in June, and her attorney is now seeking a hearing date.

Smith worked for Presbyterian for four days in February. She was fired after a urine test came back positive for the active ingredient in marijuana. According to the lawsuit, she submitted a doctor's note and her state-issued medical marijuana card, but Presbyterian officials said providers were not allowed to participate in the medical marijuana program.

A military veteran, Smith was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. She said she began using medical marijuana to treat her symptoms after other medications failed to work.

She and her attorney argue that employers should not be able to limit workers' access to treatment options that are legal under state law, or discriminate against those who hold medical marijuana licenses.

"Individual rights and liberties and the ability of an adult to be able to address their issues and treat themselves in a healthy way pursuant to the laws of their state are what's at stake here," attorney Jason Flores-Williams said Wednesday.

New Mexico in 2007 was the first state to develop and implement a medical marijuana production and distribution system, and it has served as a model for others states. But some legal experts say employers here still misunderstand the relationship between medical marijuana and the workplace, and the fact that pot is illegal under federal law further complicates matters.

While some states have laws that prohibit employers from discriminating against card holders, and in some cases registered workers who test positive for marijuana, New Mexico employers can set policies aimed at drug-free workplaces.

State and federal courts have generally supported employers, but medical marijuana advocates say it's time for more clarification in New Mexico.

Jessica Gelay with the Drug Policy Alliance in New Mexico said employers are behind in terms of crafting policies that take the state's medical marijuana program and patients' rights under the New Mexico Human Rights Act into account.

"People shouldn't be punished as long as there's no undermining of their ability to do their job or coming to work impaired," she said.

In Smith's case, her attorney said she satisfied all the requirements for a medical marijuana license and served her patients in an outstanding capacity, but now her career is threatened.

Presbyterian officials could not comment specifically on the lawsuit. But Joanne Suffis, senior vice president of Presbyterian's human resources department, said the company is committed to patient safety and that a drug-free workplace is a key component.

In another case filed earlier this year, a longtime employee of the Metropolitan Detention Center was fired following a positive test for marijuana. Augustine Stanley, an Iraq War veteran who has a license to use medical marijuana to treat PTSD, is also claiming violations of the state Human Rights Act.