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Health worker fired over use of medical pot

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A New Mexico nurse practitioner participating in New Mexico’s medical marijuana program says in a lawsuit that Presbyterian Healthcare Services violated her rights by firing her after a drug screening.

Donna Smith, who said she is licensed to use medical marijuana to treat symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, was fired in February just four days after she began a job at a Presbyterian urgent care clinic in Albuquerque, according to a lawsuit filed in District Court.

Smith received a phone call from Presbyterian’s medical affairs office informing her that a required urine test found THC, a trace substance of marijuana, the suit says.

Smith said she provided Presbyterian with documentation showing she was a legal medical marijuana patient. A Presbyterian official later fired her, saying that company policy prohibited medical providers from being medical marijuana patients, according to the lawsuit.

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“This is a matter of Presbyterian simply not recognizing state laws,” said Jason Flores-Williams, Smith’s attorney.

A Presbyterian spokeswoman said Smith was fired out of concern for patient safety.

“Presbyterian is committed to patient safety and we believe that a drug-free workplace is a key component,” Joanne Suffis, Presbyterian’s senior vice president for human resources, said in a written statement.

“The use of medical marijuana is not recognized by federal law and Presbyterian has a mandate under federal law to provide a drug-free workplace,” Suffis said.

New Mexico’s medical marijuana statute contains a provision saying that the law does not protect patients from civil or criminal penalties for use or possession of pot in the workplace.

But Flores-Williams said his client’s termination had no connection with her job performance or behavior at work.

“She neither possessed nor used medical marijuana in the workplace,” he said. Instead, he said, Presbyterian learned of her marijuana use during a drug test administered to all job applicants.

“If you smoke pot, it stays in your system as detectable for 30 days,” Flores-Williams said. “This has nothing to do with her job performance. Her previous job performance reviews were outstanding, and that’s why they hired her.”

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Smith worked as a physician assistant in the military until she was honorably discharged in 1998 and subsequently worked for civilian employers, he said.

Smith contends that she was diagnosed last year with PTSD and began using medical marijuana on the advice of a physician to treat symptoms of the illness. The primary symptoms of her PTSD were night terrors and insomnia.

She was issued a medical pot identification card in November.

The lawsuit alleges that Presbyterian violated her civil rights under state law because she was fired as a result of a physical or mental condition.

She is seeking unspecified compensation for lost wages and damage to her professional reputation.

Since her termination, Smith has been forced to move to Farmington and has only found part-time work, the suit contends.

Smith’s lawsuit is not the first legal case stemming from the firing of a licensed medical pot patient.

In 2012, a state employee filed a lawsuit alleging she was harassed, then fired, because she participated in the medical marijuana program to treat PTSD.

Valerie Romero maintains she lost her job based on a positive drug test. Her lawsuit against the state’s personnel office is scheduled for trial in September in Santa Fe.

Romero contends that state officials suggested she change her lifestyle or try “faith-based” remedies for PTSD. In its response, the personnel office maintained that Romero came to work stoned and that her marijuana use impaired her job performance.

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