Florida highschool officers sacked for utilizing authorized medical marijuana
When a fight broke out among students at Belleview High School in central Florida, school officer Mike Hickman entered the fight and stood his body on the line to intervene. Nothing in the school’s administrative code mandated him to risk himself to keep his students safe, but he did it anyway.
A school official’s good deed did not go unpunished: he was fired after stepping in to end a fight in the school yard.
Hickman is a naval combat veteran who suffered serious injuries while serving in the Gulf War from 1990 to 1991. For the past thirty years, he has lived in chronic pain from these wounds – and a number of surgeries he had performed to heal them. For a while, he relied on prescribed opioids for relief, but then found that cannabis worked far better. He was able to gain relief without the serious side effects – and the risk of addiction and overdose – that came with opioid use.
Hickman did his job at Belleview – where he served as the school’s student services director – admirably for years while privately managing his health.
Then came the schoolyard fight.
Punished for his good deed
It happened a year ago, in November 2019.
During the brawl, Hickman suffered a new injury – one so severe that a visit to a worker’s compensation doctor was required. This doctor acted on behalf of his employer and asked him to submit a urine sample. The sample was not part of Hickman’s treatment. Its sole purpose was to test for drug use.
When the urine test returned positive for THC, Hickman’s 10 year service at Marion County Public Schools ended. The Marion County School Board fired Mike Hickman, highlighting a district policy that prohibits employees from using cannabis for any reason, even if that use is off-school and on the recommendation of a doctor.
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Go on opioids or lose your job
District officials have offered to limit his sentence to suspension should Hickman stop using medical cannabis. Hickman was forced to choose between his career as an educator and the medicine that ensures his quality of life and chose his medicine.
Mike Hickman’s drugs are legal under state law. But it’s against school district policy.
Medical cannabis has been legal in Florida since 2016, when 71% of voters approved a state constitutional amendment that allows doctors to recommend it to their patients. And according to a 2019 article by MJ Biz Daily, business is now booming “with an average of nearly two pharmacies opening every week across the state.”
The legality of Mike Hickman’s cannabis use under state law is beyond dispute. Nor does anyone claim that he was disabled when he came to work or that he did not carry out his official duties in any way with the utmost expertise and professionalism.
But after months of hearings and litigation, none of this mattered. On November 4th, the Marion Public School Board voted 5-0 to terminate his employment.
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What about the kids?
Hickman has refused to publicly discuss the case. Shortly after the school board’s ruling on Nov. 4, Hickman’s attorney, Mark Herdman, told a local reporter that the action was “just another unfortunate decision by the Marion County School Board to fire another good employee.”
But losing your employment, including your place in the lives of countless young people who look up to you as an educator, mentor, and pillar of the community, goes far beyond simply losing your job. To see someone who has served his country with honor and was wounded on the battlefield dismissed for choosing safe, effective medicine exposes a terrible hypocrisy at the heart of the war on drugs.
For decades, America’s weed warriors have justified their destructive ban on a crop by invoking the fate of “children”. What message, they ask, would it send so that a combat veteran could smoke a joint or use a cannabis ointment in the privacy of their own home instead of bursting dangerous, addictive pills?
The real question is what lesson Mike Hickman’s students will learn from a society that publicly shames and dismisses an upright citizen for something that shouldn’t be anyone’s business but him.
A cannabis catch-22
Several school board members contacted by Leafly put questions to Kevin Christian, the district public relations director.
District officials tried to find a way to justify Hickman’s release. It’s about a long outdated zero tolerance policy for a drug that is now legal.
At first, Christian tried to shape the problem so that Hickman would not disclose his use of medical cannabis to school boards until he failed his drug test – “that’s really a big part of what the school board was raising concerns about” – although he eventually admitted that nothing in the school board’s policy would have prevented Hickman from being fired immediately for simply making such a disclosure.
In fact, this directive specifically lists marijuana among the prohibited substances without considering whether it is legal under state law. This zero tolerance approach to maintaining a “drug-free workplace” has remained unchanged for decades. After medical cannabis was legalized in Florida four years ago, the school board was unable to update the district’s guidelines in any way.
School authorities are hiding behind federal law
Even now, the school board said, the fact that cannabis continues to be illegal nationwide prevents them from granting further allowances as public schools receive federal funding that could theoretically be cut off if they only allow a single exception.
Back in 2019, a committee in the U.S. House of Representatives instructed the Human Resources Office to review guidelines for hiring and firing federal employees in states with legal cannabis.
The Committee encourages OPM to review its policies and guidelines regarding the hiring and firing of people who use marijuana in states where that person’s personal use of marijuana is not prohibited by state law. These guidelines should reflect updated changes to the marijuana use law and clearly state the impact of marijuana use on federal employment.
So far, however, no such measures have been taken at the federal level.
Florida bill passed in early 2020 “prohibiting an employer from taking negative personnel action against an employee or applicant who is a qualified patient using medical marijuana” but passed away on committee.
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The next employee can ignore the fight
The Marion County School Board unanimously voted to resign him, despite the overwhelming support of Hickman from students, faculties, parents and the Marion Education Association, a local teachers union.
“Imagine if this employee just sit back and let the two students keep fighting regardless of their safety,” said Chris Altobello, executive director of the Marion Education Association, after Hickman’s dismissal to the Ocala Star-Banner newspaper. “We wouldn’t be here now.”
Altickello added that Hickman was no more affected than someone taking an aspirin for a headache. You indicated that this is equivalent to smoking in the boys’ bathroom! “
Lazy politics leads to a good man firing
Eventually, a review process landed before Judge Suzanne Van Wyk of the Tallahassee State Department of Administrative Hearing. Wyk confirmed Hickman’s release, though not without reservation.
In an eight-page ruling, Van Wyk noted Hickman’s argument that it would be unfair to punish someone for using legal medical cannabis if the school board would not object “to teaching under the influence of opioid pain relievers that he had been doing for years before they were available of medical marijuana. “
However, the best offer for Hickman was to stop using cannabis and return to work after a 20-day suspension. In other words: continue to suffer from pain; or take dangerous, addictive pills; or lose your job.
Mike Hickman chose his health and lost his job.
It’s a choice no one should make.
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Veteran cannabis journalist David Bienenstock is the author of How to Smoke Pot (Right): A High-profile Guide to Getting High “(2016 – Penguin / Random House) and co-host and co-creator of the podcast” Great Moments in “Weed Story With Abdullah and Bean. “Follow him on Twitter @pot_handbook.
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