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MDC officer lost his job over medical marijuana

Augustine “Augie” Stanley, an Iraq war veteran, lost his job as a corrections officer for the Metropolitan Detention Center over his use of medical marijuana to ease his PTSD. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Augustine “Augie” Stanley, an Iraq war veteran, lost his job as a corrections officer for the Metropolitan Detention Center over his use of medical marijuana to ease his PTSD. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Oh, the stories Augustine Stanley could tell.

Awful, harrowing stories from his nearly yearlong deployment in 2004 to Iraq as an Army Reserve convoy security specialist for the 644th Transportation Company.

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Awful, harrowing stories from his 13 years as a corrections officer at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Albuquerque.

He doesn’t pick the easy jobs.

But the story Stanley tells these days is how his experience with the former indirectly affected the latter and how it all went up in smoke.

Which is a pretty awful, harrowing story itself.

Stanley, the 32-year-old son of former Bernalillo County sheriff’s captain and Gallup Police Chief Sylvester Stanley, is a sturdy, stoic man who speaks and acts in a measured, mannered way. He was barely out of high school when he began his career as an MDC corrections officer in 1999.

In 2006, after returning from serving his country, he was promoted to sergeant. A year later, he made lieutenant. He served on the jail’s SWAT-like Corrections Emergency Response and Tactical Team, or CERT, and its Security Threat Group, which diffuses street and prison gang activity.

His record is unblemished, he said, though an MDC spokeswoman would not comment on that.

Stanley talks reluctantly about Iraq — nearly being blown to bits by a rocket-propelled grenade four hours after landing in the country, finding what was left of a young soldier from his platoon who was not as lucky.

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“The explosion ripped him to pieces,” he said. “He was this young kid, and they were taking out body parts in bags.”

His wife, Anetra, saw what those experiences did to her Augie.

“I’ve known him since high school, and he has never even raised his voice,” she said. “But after he came back, he was changed. He talked about hurting himself. Once, he smashed his fist into a truck window and broke it.”

Augie, she said, had panic attacks in stores and at family gatherings. Crowds, noises were too much for him.

Only working at MDC at a job he loved, the job he knew, could he control the suffocating wave of what was later diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder.

That diagnosis came in January 2011 and with it came the medications: Xanax for anxiety, Ambien for insomnia, citalopram for depression.

He hated them all.

“They just knocked me out,” he said. “I couldn’t function.”

About a year later, another MDC officer recommended what had worked for his PTSD: medical marijuana.

(And yes, other MDC officers use medical marijuana but haven’t been drug tested.)

The Journal reported last month that PTSD is the most common diagnosis used to qualify for the medical marijuana program — about 42 percent of all medical marijuana users. Many of them are military veterans like Stanley, and many report that medical marijuana is better at treating PTSD symptoms than typical opioid narcotics and prescription drugs.

“I will admit I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of pot,” Anetra Stanley said. “But medical marijuana gave me my husband back.”

MDC wasn’t as pleased.

On Sept. 19, 2012, three months after he had begun using medical marijuana, Stanley was called in for a random drug test, a requirement for “safety sensitive” employees of Bernalillo County. Not surprisingly, the result was positive for cannabis.

Stanley provided the county’s medical review officer with documentation of his PTSD diagnosis and his medical marijuana card. Still, he was placed on administrative leave with pay Oct. 7, pending the outcome of his disciplinary hearing. The hearing was held in December before corrections chief Ramon Rustin.

On Jan. 7 of last year, Stanley was fired.

MDC spokeswoman Nataura Powdrell said Stanley was not fired because of medical marijuana, but because he hadn’t notified his supervisor about his use of a controlled substance.

“He’s a lieutenant, and he understands the policy and should have informed his supervisor,” she said.

According to jail policy: “No employee shall ingest any controlled substance unless prescribed directly to them. When taking any prescribed medication … employee must notify their immediate supervisor when taking any prescribed medication that may impair their ability to perform the essential functions of their job or may cause the employee to be inattentive or drowsy.”

Because Stanley smokes medical marijuana before bed and off duty when a panic attack is imminent, he said, his work performance is not impaired and thus he wasn’t obliged to tell his supervisor what he was doing on his own time.

Powdrell, however, countered that Stanley is always on call because he is on CERT.

Stanley doesn’t buy it.

“Then why didn’t they just pull me off CERT?” he said. “They didn’t have to fire me.”

Stanley has gone through three grievance steps, to no avail. Had MDC given him a job sweeping floors, he might have considered it.

As it happens, MDC officials offered to give Stanley back his job and his seniority in April, provided that he agree to certain conditions.

One condition is that he maintain clean drug screens — essentially putting an end to his use of medical marijuana.

He considered it, against his wife’s wishes.

But he could not agree to MDC’s demand that he not ask to get back the $30,000 he lost in early withdrawal penalties when he pulled out his $90,000 retirement fund or the 13 years he had already accrued toward his retirement at 20 years.

“I would have to start my 20 years over again,” he said.

MDC civil litigation administrator Mike Martindale said MDC has no authority over pension penalties and that he could buy back his years toward retirement if he wished.

That, Stanley said, would cost him about $100,000.

And what of the use of medical marijuana itself by an MDC employee? Powdrell said the jail’s legal folks are still deciding how to address that. Recent court cases nationally have sided with employers, holding that while medical marijuana laws may protect the user from criminal action, they do not allow the user to violate workplace drug policies, regardless of whether the marijuana is smoked off the clock and out of the office.

For now, things are at an impasse. The Stanleys, who have four children ages 4 to 11, are nearly broke.

His house is in foreclosure.

Most of his retirement money is tied up in a tow-truck business, called Lil Aug’s, that will take time to get off the ground.

“I served my country, and I served my county,” he said. “But it feels like that meant nothing. It feels wrong.”

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, jkrueger@abqjournal.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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