OGDEN — A firefighter has sued Ogden City, contending he was unlawfully suspended from duty for refusing to surrender his medical cannabis card.
Levi Coleman’s suit, filed in 2nd District Court on Nov. 17 against the city and the Ogden Fire Department, accuses the defendants of discriminating against a government employee in violation of the Utah Medical Cannabis Act.
Coleman, a firefighter and EMT with Ogden since 2011, said he suffers from chronic back pain but it did not interfere with the performance of his duties. He got a medical cannabis prescription and a state medical cannabis card in June this year.
The suit said the fire department adopted a policy in August that requires employees to report if they are taking prescriptions or over-the-counter medications whose labels warn of possible impairment. It also requires reporting if any medication may “interfere with the performance of essential job tasks.”
Coleman said he knew of other firefighters with medical cannabis cards who notified the department of the cards. They were put on leave and told to give up the cards if they wanted to return to work. He said that they chose to surrender the cards so they could go back to work.
The suit claimed other firefighters have controlled substance prescriptions other than for medical cannabis and have been allowed to keep working.
Ogden Deputy Fire Chief Mike Slater, head of the department’s medical operations, declined Friday to comment on the suit, referring questions to the city attorney.
The city’s chief administrative officer, Mark Johnson, also chose not to comment on the suit, saying it was being assessed by the city attorney’s office, but he briefly addressed the issue in general.
“We have some great concerns policy-wise with public safety individuals taking any form of controlled substances,” Johnson said. “So I think it’s a lot muddier than it’s being made out to be.”
The suit said Coleman knew he probably would be put on leave, but he decided to keep his card and challenge the policy.
Coleman said the department told him to undergo a “fit for duty” evaluation by a medical contractor. Coleman alleged the doctor did not perform a drug test or run him through a physical fitness test.
After talking to the firefighter and confirming he had a medical cannabis card, the doctor filed a report saying Coleman had a “medical condition which would endanger applicant or public.” The report said Coleman’s condition would “interfere with performance” because of “potential impairment” from medical cannabis.
The department then suspended Coleman without pay and said he could resume work only if he surrendered the card, according to the suit. The suit alleges the suspension amounts to a firing.
The suit said Coleman “has neither failed a drug test nor been impaired at work and there is no evidence that his use of medical cannabis adversely affected his job performance.”
The suit demands the fire department policy be rewritten and that Coleman be reinstated and reimbursed for vacation and sick leave he has been forced to use. He also alleges his suspension is a violation of the Utah Whistleblower Act, which protects employees who, in good faith, refuse to go against an improper directive.
Johnson said his understanding is that “the science isn’t really perfected” regarding how medical cannabis affects individuals. He said the city is justifiably concerned about any potential impairment of an employee “who may be driving a fire truck, a paramedic dealing with some life saving situation or a police officer having to use his weapon.”
Efforts to contact Coleman’s attorney, Erik Strindberg, were not immediately successful.
Image: Unsplashed Jay Heike