City Hall

Austin Will No Longer Disqualify First Responder Applicants for Past Cannabis Use

This year, the Texas Compassionate Use Program was expanded to include several new conditions and products with as much as 1% THC.
This year, the Texas Compassionate Use Program was expanded to include several new conditions and products with as much as 1% THC. Malen Blackmon
Austin will stop disqualifying people for first-responder jobs because of prior cannabis use. Before, applicants would be asked if they’d consumed cannabis in the last three years. If the answer was yes, they didn’t get the job.

But now questions about prior cannabis use have been removed from the hiring process in Austin. The move was necessary, in part, because so many first responders have PTSD, which is a qualifying condition for the Compassionate Use Program, the state’s medical THC program.

This September, a new law took effect, which opened up the Compassionate Use Program to several more conditions, including any form of PTSD.

“Cannabis is decriminalized or legalized in 31 states for recreational use. Medical cannabis is legal in 36  states,” Austin EMS Association President Selena Xie said in a press release. “Furthermore, the Texas state Legislature has expanded medical cannabis for a PTSD diagnosis. Due to COVID-19 and the nature of EMS work, many of our first responders have PTSD.”

Xie said Austin’s chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws was instrumental in making the change happen.

“Texas NORML and Austin EMS Association raised awareness of this issue and sent almost three thousand letters to the Austin City Council to remove this question,” Xie said.

Cities are leading the way for cannabis reform in Texas. Austin, for example, has stopped arresting and ticketing people for small amounts of weed. North Texas cities like Dallas and Plano have made similar moves. Dallas will only cite or arrest for Class C misdemeanor pot possession if there’s evidence of intent to distribute.

"Due to COVID-19 and the nature of EMS work, many of our first responders have PTSD.” – Selena Xie, Austin EMS Association

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But prior cannabis use can still get you disqualified for a first-responder job in Dallas, said Jason Evans, Dallas Fire-Rescue spokesperson. However, he said there are also resources for the city's first responders who may suffer from PTSD or other psychological ailments brought on by the job.

"I think it goes without saying that DFR, like most fire/EMS and law enforcement agencies, has several members who experience PTSD during their careers," Evans said. "We have several resources available to those members."

Denton seems to be on its way to decriminalize misdemeanor amounts of pot with a new ordinance. Decriminalize Denton, a local cannabis advocacy organization, is behind the ordinance. Tristan Seikel, the group’s organizer and co-founder, said they were happy to see the new rule for first responders in Austin and that they'd support something similar in Denton.

"We would definitely support taking that action along with other new policy changes here in Denton after we get our ordnance passed," Seikel said.

Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, told the outlet Marijuana Moment that both private and public sector employers are starting to realize responsible cannabis consumers should not be disqualified for different jobs.

In June, Amazon, the second-largest employer in the country, said it would stop drug testing for cannabis and that it supported legalization.

"In the past, like many employers, we've disqualified people from working at Amazon if they tested positive for marijuana use," Dave Clark, the company’s retail chief, wrote in a blog post that month. "However, given where state laws are moving across the U.S., we've changed course."
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Jacob Vaughn, a former Brookhaven College journalism student, has written for the Observer since 2018, first as clubs editor. More recently, he's been in the news section as a staff writer covering City Hall, the Dallas Police Department and whatever else editors throw his way.
Contact: Jacob Vaughn