Photo by Mitchell Kmetz

Austin Changes Marijuana Policy for First Responders

Austin, Texas, won’t be worried about hiring first responders who have used marijuana in the past.

Noting cannabis is now decriminalized or legalized in 31 states for recreational use, medical cannabis is legal in 36 states and Texas recently expanded medical cannabis for a PTSD diagnosis, Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services (ATCEMS) decided to change its policy.

“Due to COVID-19 and the nature of EMS work, many of our first responders have PTSD. Up until now, ATCEMS has disqualified candidates from working for ATCEMS if they have had ANY cannabis use in three years,” a news release noted. “Last week, ATCEMS agreed to remove the question.”

The action was taken after the Austin NORML community raised awareness of the issue, said Selena Xie, president of the ATCEMS union. 

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Marijuana is still illegal on a federal level, but cities have taken it upon themselves to change their restrictive policies. Austin, Dallas and Plano won’t arrest and ticket citizens for possession of small amounts of weed any longer, and Denton is considering a similar change.

But cannabis use in the past can still disqualify you for a first-responder job in Dallas, Jason Evans, Dallas Fire-Rescue spokesperson, told the Observer. “I think it goes without saying that DFR, like most fire/EMS and law-enforcement agencies, has several members who experience PTSD during their careers,” Evans said, adding there are already some resources available for first responders who may suffer from PTSD or other psychological ailments brought on by the job.

Xie told KUVE News in Austin she partnered with Texas NORML, and they sent thousands of letters to the Austin City Council and EMS Interim Chief Jasper Brown before the city finally made the change. She said out-of-state applicants from places where cannabis is legal had dried up at a time when emergency services are understaffed. “We didn’t want Texans and people from all over this country to not be allowed to work for our department because of legal use. It’s really bad right now,” Xie said. “We’re about 80 paramedics down.”

Jax Finkel, executive director of Texas NORML, said it was an important step forward for the city of Austin. “The City used the powers of the purse to pressure APD [Austin Police Department] to do what is best for Austin and to no longer waste taxpayers’ funds on these victimless crimes that have disparately impacted communities of color. Texas NORML was proud to work alongside many local organizations to help push forward this important resolution.”

This piece was originally published by Marijuana Moment and has been edited or modified by The News Station.

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