New Mexico Corrections Officer Fired For Medicating Legally With Cannabis
As it has with thousands of PTSD patients nationwide, cannabis gave 32-year-old Augustine Stanley his life back. Already a decorated veteran, already the youngest Lieutenant at New Mexico’s Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center, he could survive IEDs in Iraq and prison gang member sequestration cells in Albuquerque. But it looks iffy whether his promising, unblemished career will survive a urine test.
Stanley led the team of corrections officers that handles the highest risk inmates in the Albuquerque area – not just violent criminals, but people at risk to themselves. “I was interviewing for promotion to Captain,” he told me. “I don’t even have a disciplinary file. Then last September I failed a urine test.”
This is, sadly and temporarily, not a unique case of what happens in the final days of cannabis prohibition when a patient who works in a “drug”-tested position and his family choose his well-being over even his livelihood and obligation to support, in Stanley’s case, his four kids. And when you talk to this local boy, he makes no bones about one truth: cannabis was and is a life-or-death necessity for him. Otherwise he would never have threatened a career that had logged 13 years toward a lucrative 20-year retirement plan.
In a steady, non-emotional voice, Stanley told me, “The Xanax (alprazolam anti-anxiety pharmaceutical) I was prescribed (after a traumatic tour in Iraq in 2005) just deepened my depression. I was a worse person to be around. I’d take even half the prescribed amount and fall asleep on the couch. I think of that time and the word that comes to mind is zombie.”
Then another vet told Stanley what thousands of vets now know: that cannabis frees many PTSD sufferers from addictive pills and their often devastating side-effects, while allowing them to function in their work, in their relationships, and in their journey toward healing.
“My wife didn’t like the sound of it at first,” Stanley said. “But I had to try it – I knew what (cannabis) was, from trying it now and then in college. I knew it wouldn’t kill me. The legal pills I was supposed to take every day were killing me.” (The New York Times reported in 2011 that an entire hospital system in Tennessee stopped prescribing alprazolam because its abuse was so widespread.)
What are Stanley’s wife Anetra’s feelings about medical cannabis today? “I got educated on it,” she told me. “It’s amazing. It really is. I don’t want him to stop. If he stops, he’s a different person. He’s angry. When he’s medicated, he’s able to have patience, play with the kids, he’s my husband again. It’s night and day. Even his mother sees that he’s got his life back and supports him using this medicine. I used to think medicinal cannabis was an excuse to smoke. So my message to the world is to embrace this plant as a medicine. It’s real and it works.”
So how does a PTSD sufferer utilize cannabis? It varies, of course, patient to patient: that’s how herbal medication works – ask any Chinese medical practitioner; this a tradition that hasn’t stopped using cannabis for the last 3,000 years, including to ease delivery pain and anxiety for mothers-to-be during labor. Stanley describes his cannabis use this way: “If I’m having a panic attack, I use it. But that’s happening less and less now. I never used it at work.”
And yet his effective medication, an inexpensive plant he obtained legally under New Mexico’s state medicinal cannabis program, got him fired.
“I was interviewing for promotions – no one was even thinking of firing me,” Stanley said to me. “But on January 7 of this year I was fired for cannabis showing up in a drug test. There are plenty of correction officers on prescriptions and they’re allowed to work – why shouldn’t I have the same opportunity? I’m following state law.”
Stanley, in our hour-long conversation, rarely sounded bitter, but he was clearly not thrilled when he added, “There are even three other corrections officers who are part of the state cannabis program. One was recently promoted, and the other two drive county vehicles eight hours a day.”
What Stanley was describing is a policy crossroads at which all of working America needs to make the correct turn. The issues at stake are productivity, reliability and sobriety at work. Today, industries such as corrections (and trucking, air travel, education, nursing and any industry that feels it has to drug test) operates according to a de facto ”don’t ask/don’t tell” cannabis policy that applies unless an employee fails a drug test. It’s not merely dishonest, it’s a policy that actually hampers our nation’s output and bottom-line productivity. As a Google employee told me last week when I performed my Too High to Fail live event for company employees on its Seattle campus, “If we drug tested, there wouldn’t be a high tech industry.”
Clearly, as cannabis becomes legal, we as a society must agree to remove the plant from the substances that are unilaterally prohibited in workplaces (known as a per se ban), and instead apply a sensible policy, similar to workplace policy on alcohol. As in, “don’t come to work intoxicated.” Clearly, Stanley wasn’t impaired in the execution of his duties. He couldn’t be: he was quite literally putting his life on the line every day.
Most Americans realize that this commonsense approach’s day has arrived. Unfortunately, both former U.S. Drug Czars and politicians like Florida Governor Rick Scott now benefit from the counter productive “pee test” model of workplace efficiency and safety, since they work for, have worked for, or even have founded companies that provide testing services. Economic patriotism must overcome tired myths about cannabis. Some veterans’ organizations are already partnering with national drug policy groups to make this more sensible day come sooner rather than later. New Mexico, ironically, in being one of the first medical cannabis states to institutionalize acceptance of PTSD as a condition for which cannabis is therapeutic, is taking the lead. The Drug Policy Alliance’s New Mexico office has just launched a “Freedom to Choose” campaign to improve veteran access to cannabis for “PTSD and Other Wounds of War.”
As his appeals process continues, Stanley is anything but sorry for himself. “I’m 32 years old, I’m a healthy young guy who works hard, and I’ve shown I am on the way to success,” he told me. “I’ll find work.”
That’s not why Stanley is going public about his ordeal, which he thinks will end up, when the union arbitration process wraps in August, in court. “I really hope that my case will change policy,” he said. “It’s shame the way this medication is looked upon in some fields. It needs to be treated like any other medication. Everyone has a right to have a good quality of life. If my case opens minds, especially law enforcement administrators’ minds, or saves one guy’s job somewhere, this will all be worth it.”
Originally published for the National Cannabis Coalition. Republished with permission. Text “NCC” to 420420 for important cannabis news and updates. Please consider making a donation to help NCC with its political activism across the country.
Doug Fine, bestselling author of Too High to Fail: Cannabis and the New Green Economic Revolution, is one of the world’s few investigative cannabis journalists. As such, he meets folks from Hawaii to Laos who, until federal and worldwide prohibition finally ends and the professional conventions begin, are unlikely to meet one another. He’s a pollinator of Drug Peace ideas, in other words, a bumblebee. Each week in this column you’ll hear another cannabis story from around the planet. Doug’s work from five continents is at: www.dougfine.com. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter @organiccowboy.