Bill would protect jobs for pot users

RYAN HUTTON/Staff file photoSitting in her Methuen home in July, Bernadette Coughlin reflects on how she was fired by Sodexo, a food service contractor for Holy Family Hospital in Methuen, after she tested positive for marijuana following a workplace fall.

When Bernadette Coughlin lost her job after a workplace injury led to a failed drug test, she became a vocal advocate for change.

The longtime Peabody resident, who now lives in Methuen, met with several legislators in the hopes one of them would hear her story — a self-described “work mom” now unemployed because she occasionally relaxed after work with a few hits from a vape pen — and enact workplace protections for recreational users.

Now, state Sen. Jason Lewis, D-Winchester, plans to introduce legislation next month that would prevent workers from losing their jobs just because they ingested marijuana during off-hours.

Lewis’ office confirmed the senator plans to file a bill that will address the “workplace implications of legal, adult recreational marijuana use outside of the workplace.”

Exact language of the proposed measure is still being drafted.

Coughlin, 55, lost her management job with Sodexo — a multinational food service contractor at Holy Family Hospital in Methuen — for smoking marijuana at her home after hours. 

She had broken her arm when she fell at work on May 30, and when she went to the doctor in June was subjected to a drug test per the company’s policies, which indicated it operated under federal law, where marijuana is still illegal. She received her termination notice June 11. 

Six months after Coughlin lost her job, she’s still on “light duty” per doctor’s orders, and hasn’t found employment.

Earlier this year, state Sens. Joan Lovely, D-Salem, and Barbara L’Italien, D-Andover, wrote a letter to Steven Hoffman, chairman of the state Cannabis Control Commission, urging the panel to rectify the situation.

“While the issue here is ultimately traceable to the fact that marijuana use remains prohibited under federal law, it is incumbent upon Massachusetts institutions like the state Legislature and Cannabis Control Commission to enact policies that will protect Massachusetts workers from this type of groundless termination,” their letter reads.

Under a 2017 ruling by the Supreme Judicial Court in Massachusetts, companies cannot fire people who use the drug for medical purposes. But there are currently no protections for recreational consumers. Massachusetts voters legalized recreational marijuana use in 2016.

“If I go in for an interview and they say, ‘Your last employer was Sodexo, and the reason for leaving was you were terminated’ — because I fell and broke my arm and failed a drug test, I don’t know of that many people that are going to be standing in line to give me a job,” Coughlin said on Wednesday.

But she is happy her voice is being heard.

“What (Sen. Lewis) was saying is exactly the way I felt,” she said. I don’t think people should be smoking weed, going to work, or on their lunch break, but if it’s something adults are doing responsibly in the privacy of their own home ... that’s what it should be all about, to protect people like those exactly in my situation.”

Coughlin said she would testify at the Statehouse in favor of the legislation, which she said the legislator is tentatively dubbing “Bernadette’s Bill.”

“Hopefully that’s what people take from it, that something like this can happen to somebody like me,” she said. “I still believe that I didn’t do anything wrong.”

The filing deadline for new legislation in the Senate is Jan. 18.