A Florida appeals court on Wednesday upheld the firing of a Department of Corrections officer for using medical cannabis, WOKV reports. A three-judge panel of the 1st District Court cited federal law and a job requirement that officers are able to use firearms.
The case was brought by Samuel Velez Ortiz, a former sergeant for the Department of Corrections who was approved by a physician to use medical cannabis to treat post-traumatic stress disorder related to previous military service. Velez Ortiz had failed a random drug test in 2021, which led to his termination under the department’s “zero tolerance” policy for drugs. Velez Ortiz challenged the firing, taking the dispute to the 1st District Court of Appeals after the state Public Employees Relations Commission backed his termination.
In the ruling, written by Judge Clay Roberts and joined by Judges Stephanie Ray and M. Kemmerly Thomas, the panel said that although Velez Ortiz “can legally possess and use medicinal marijuana under state law, his use of it is illegal under federal law.”
“Accordingly, he cannot lawfully possess a firearm. Each time he does, he is committing a felony. And each year, he is required to possess a firearm to qualify. As a result, he is violating his requirement to maintain good moral character, which is required to keep his correctional officer certification.” — Roberts, in the ruling, via WOKV
In their brief, lawyers for the state wrote that Velez Ortiz did not argue that the Corrections Department “may validly prohibit correctional officers from being under the influence of marijuana, including medical marijuana, while on the job, no matter whether the officer ingested that substance on or off-site.”
“Yet the department has no way to distinguish between an officer who is high on the job because he ingested medical marijuana from a person who ingested the same drug off-site. The result would be untenable risks to public safety,” the lawyers wrote. “A correctional officer who shows up to work high or experiencing the lingering effects of marijuana – including lack of focus and delayed reaction times – may not trigger alarm bells until the worst-case scenario has already come to pass.”
Velez Ortiz’s attorneys argued that the case revolved around “discrimination” against Velez Ortiz “for being a medical marijuana user” noting that he had never asked to use or possess medical cannabis on-site or during work hours.
The case is believed to be the first of its kind in the U.S.
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