A voter-approved law reducing possession of small amounts of marijuana to a civil offense threatens to unravel drug testing of police and other public employees, the Herald has learned.
The law, which goes into effect Jan. 2, prohibits government agencies and authorities from enforcing any punishment for pot possession with a fine greater than $100, according to the Massachusetts Police Chiefs Association, and defines possession so broadly as to include traces of pot in blood to urine to hair and fingernails.
“This very much threatens to undermine our ability to do the drug testing we do,” said Jack Collins, an attorney for the Massachusetts Police Chiefs Association.
Collins is calling for police departments to stop drug testing certain employees until the Legislature can explicitly allow public employees who fail drug tests to be punished. Without swift action, police departments and other agencies face lawsuits from unions protecting their members, Collins said.
“At this point, it looks like a violation of their rights, and then there’d be a lawsuit and it would cost thousands of dollars,” he warned.
Berkshire District Attorney David Capeless predicted the new law has far-reaching consequences for even school bus drivers and MBTA train operators, who could point to the law and say they can only be fined, not fired, for marijuana offenses.
“People given the critical job of looking after children or the general public, there’s a greater risk now they could be high,” Capeless warned.
Concerns about the viability of punishing people for flunking drug tests follow news reports of drug use by public workers. The Herald found that 77 MBTA employees have failed substance-abuse tests over the past three years.
A task force set up by Public Safety Secretary Kevin Burke is examining the implications of the new law and how it will be enforced. Burke’s office is expected to provide answers to questions of drug testing by year’s end.
Meanwhile, the Boston Police Department plans to continue drug testing regardless of any uncertainty, said Elaine Driscoll. “Enforcing our drug policies is non-negotiable,” Driscoll said.
Thursday, December 25, 2008