This cancer sufferer uses weed to manage pain?—?and fears losing everything as a result.
Dennis has stage 4 colon cancer. The good news is that he’s in treatment for it, and it’s going well. He’s in radiotherapy to shrink his tumors and will have surgery in the next few months to remove them completely.
The bad news is that the nausea caused by the chemo is extreme. After a dose, it’s difficult for him to keep food down. This is common in cancer patients, and a major reason that they lose so much weight. That weight loss can make it difficult for their bodies to fight the cancer and rebound from therapy.
Thankfully, marijuana is considered an effective treatment for chemotherapy-induced nausea, and Dennis lives in a state where medical marijuana is legal. Dennis has a medical marijuana prescription and takes a single edible dose of THC after he leaves work. Within an hour, his stomach is settled enough to let him eat.
There’s only one problem with all this: Dennis’s use of medical cannabis might cost him his job.
That’s because Dennis works for the federal government, and drug use by any federal employee?—?even if it’s not during work hours?—?has been grounds for immediate termination ever since 1986, when Ronald Reagan signed Executive Order 12563 during the height of the War on Drugs. The Obama administration reiterated Reagan’s directive in 2015 after a number of states legalized weed for medical use.
Dennis doesn’t take marijuana at work. He doesn’t take it for recreational purposes. It just lets him keep food down so he won’t starve to death as the cancer is purged from his body. Recent studies have suggested that THC can slow the growth of certain types of cancer cells; researchers view it as a potent weapon with which to combat cancer. Numerous doctors already prescribe it for this very purpose.
Dennis recently overheard supervisors discussing a mandate from his agency to begin instituting random drug screenings. If he’s selected for one, he’d be terminated as soon as the results came back from the lab.
“Upon notification of selection for testing, employees will have 2 hours to collect a sample of urine. I don’t know what the penalty for noncompliance is, but I suspect they will presume refusal is to avoid a positive test and refusers will therefore be subject to termination,” Dennis told Dose.
Making matters worse, Dennis recently transferred positions to a new state. He’s vulnerable, and he knows it. “I’ve not mentioned it to anyone at my new job because I don’t know who here I can trust yet. I haven’t even mentioned to most of my new coworkers that I have cancer because I’m afraid managers within the agency or department would view that as reason to give me extra scrutiny when they start selecting people to test.”
It’s highly possible that this testing program will be challenged by the courts. In 2012, a similar one at the Department of Agriculture was ruled unconstitutional. But that’s not going to do Dennis a whole lot of good.
I spoke to Stefan Borst-Censullo, a California attorney who specializes in marijuana law and serves as the lead political strategist for the group Grass Roots Government Strategies. He told me there aren’t many people looking out for patients like Dennis.
“Because the Americans with Disabilities Act is a federal statute, the courts have been consistent in ruling against medical marijuana patients, even when it’s obvious that the employer was using their weed use as a pretext for obvious discrimination,” he said.
Marijuana, both medical and recreational, is a big business now. But the industry is focused on expanding its user base?—?not protecting existing users. In other words, the medical marijuana patients who helped push legalization are being left behind.
“I haven’t decided what to do yet,” Dennis admits. “If the next course of chemo is a maintenance course with fewer drugs at a lower dosage, I may be able to just deal with the nausea and force myself to eat when I’m not hungry. If the next course is more severe, I’ll discuss again with my family.”
The fact that this is a decision he needs to make?—?to go without a medication that’s keeping him alive just to conform with an unjust law?—?is insane. But the alternative of losing his job would also be terrible. The health insurance options available to him under the Affordable Care Act will come in at over $6,000 a year and only cover 70% of costs post-deductible.
“An unemployed person can’t afford that, not out of pocket and not with subsidies. I’m also concerned the policies available to destitute folks won’t cover attempts to cure me but rather place me in palliative care. I suppose if it comes to that, I can at least manage my nausea and maintain an appetite while the insurance industry lets me slowly die of cancer,” Dennis said.
This is one of the most chilling illustrations of the failure of the War on Drugs. Twenty three states and Washington DC have legalized the medical use of marijuana, with more to follow soon. It’s patently absurd that a devoted employee with over a decade of service to our country could lose his job for a medicine that helps keep him alive.
Borst-Censullo doesn’t hold much hope that the government will provide a path to legal treatment for Dennis and people like him.
“This is unlikely to change via legalization statutes. Unfortunately the industry (myself included) are more focused on growing the commercial aspects of the legal cannabis market. Patients have long been forgotten as their usefulness in getting the original medical laws passed expired with the advent of state level adult use laws.”
That being said, one of the best ways to change the world is with your voice. If enough people protest the federal government’s classification of marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, it’s possible they’ll listen.
For years, the DEA has been making noise about removing marijuana from the Schedule 1 list, where it’s classified as being as bad as heroin. That would allow weed to be used for important medical research and reduce penalties for possession. Several politicians, including Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, have publicly come out in support of the change. People know it needs to happen.
Dennis asked me to ask you: Write your senators, your representatives, the President. Share his story. Share his outrage and push for change.
Some names and identifying information have been changed to protect the subjects of this story.