An Ogden firefighter is suspended for having a medical marijuana card. Robert Gehrke says the city, and Legislature, need to right that wrong

The city violated state law when it put the firefighter on unpaid leave for refusing to relinquish his medical cannabis card, according to a lawsuit. Several lawmakers agree.

Levi Coleman has been a firefighter for the Ogden City Fire Department for more than a decade.

But since September, Coleman has been on unpaid leave from the department, burning sick leave and vacation time, while trying to get reinstated. His offense: being prescribed medical cannabis.

He is now suing the city, trying to get his job back and recoup lost wages.

In June, Coleman was prescribed medical marijuana by a doctor. Two months later, Ogden City adopted a new drug and alcohol policy that required city employees to report if they are taking any prescription medication that might cause impairment if, by chance, they are called in from off-duty status.

Coleman, who is also a paramedic, complied, notifying Deputy Chief Michael Slater on Aug. 31 of the cannabis prescription. According to the lawsuit, he followed up two days later with a text message confirming the chief had seen the original e-mail.

Slater directed Coleman to get examined from a doctor, who performed no physical tests or drug screening. Nonetheless, according to the lawsuit, the doctor deemed the firefighter unfit for duty based on Coleman’s marijuana prescription. Coleman was immediately suspended without pay until he relinquished his medical cannabis card.

Coleman alleges in the lawsuit that Ogden City is violating state law which says that medical cannabis is no different than any other medication prescribed by a doctor and that state and local entities “shall treat an employee’s use of medical cannabis … the same way the state or political subdivision treats employee use of any prescribed controlled substance.”

State law also prohibits an entity from taking action against an employee, as long as the employee is not impaired on the job.

“This firefighter is following state law. The employer is not,” said Jack Tidrow, president of the Professional Firefighters of Utah, which is representing Coleman. “We just want to correct this as quick as we can.”

Coleman, Tidrow told me, is a top-notch firefighter, consistently scoring the highest in the department on the physical agility tests every year.

The union has been negotiating with the city to get Coleman reinstated, but so far the sides have not agreed to terms of a potential settlement.

Brandon Crowther, an attorney representing the city on the matter, emphasized that Coleman is still employed and is trying to work through the issues.

“They haven’t made a final decision and are trying to work through balancing the safety of citizens and firefighters against the individual right of firefighters to use medical cannabis,” Crowther said.

Executive director Desiree Hennessy of medical marijuana advocacy organization Utah Patients Coalition said she is aware of three other Ogden firefighters who were put on paid leave and voluntarily relinquished their cannabis cards. She said she has also spoken with firefighters with the Unified Fire Department who did so, as well.

“We have our firemen and policemen who do have on-the-job trauma, mentally and physically,” Hennessy said. “There’s no reason to restrict them from medical cannabis off-duty. We’ve never advocated for someone showing up using some kind of mind-altering medicine at work … but in this case they are using it off-duty, it’s not going to affect their job and they deserve it just like anyone else.”

Meantime, the Utah Legislature is preparing to step in and make the law even more crystal clear.

Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-Magna, is sponsoring legislation stating that punitive action cannot be taken against an employee for simply possessing a medical cannabis card and referred the situation in Ogden during a recent committee meeting as the impetus for the legislation.

“What’s happening to him is pretty far out of bounds,” Thatcher said. “If the Legislature says you cannot be penalized for lawful actions, provided there’s no impairment, [a city] should not be able to get around that because we didn’t say, ‘You cannot punish someone for having a card.’”

The bill received unanimous support from the Government Operations Committee last month and will go before the Legislature when it convenes in January.

“Even if it’s happening to one person and it’s clearly outside the original intent of the legislation, we have a moral obligation to that individual,” Thatcher added.

And he’s right.

The Legislature does has a moral obligation to fix this. And Ogden City has a moral obligation to make this right by putting Levi Coleman back on the job, restoring the sick leave he has had to burn while fighting this unjust policy and restoring the cannabis cards to the other firefighters forced to give them up.

But the Legislature also needs to go a step further.

As you may have noticed, the protections in the law currently only apply to government employees. In that sense, Coleman likely has more protection than most Utahns who might find themselves in a similar situation. The Legislature simply didn’t want to tell private employers who they can and can’t fire — although they recently did just that when it comes to COVID-19 vaccinations.

All Utah patients should fundamentally have a right to use the medicine prescribed by their doctors without fear of losing their livelihoods.

Clarification • Dec. 10, 1 p.m.: The story has been updated to make it clear that Levi Coleman was not accused of being impaired on duty.