Can firefighters, EMTs use NJ legal Weed?
At times, Dan Jensen feels like he’s caught between two worlds.
One world is on display in his corner office, where he hangs artifacts from his career — his old career, back when he could barely sleep more than an hour or two before the nightmares jolted him awake. There are a few shields from his old firefighter helmets in Pine Beach and Seaside Heights, along with a few award plaques and older, turn-of-the-century firefighting antiques.
But on an adjacent green, eye-catching wall is his new world. There’s an old propaganda poster, from the “reefer madness” era, that describes marijuana as “a vicious racket with its arms around your children” and portrays it as a green, devil-like figure wooing a woman with a joint dangling from her lips.
Jensen is in the middle of it all, trying to help the people from one half of his life realize the benefits of the other.
“How many guys who get on (fire) trucks have drinking problems or opioid disorders, who pop pills for back pain?,” he said. “If you’re off-duty and want to get the benefits from a plant, you should be allowed to.”
With cannabis becoming more normalized in New Jersey and the rest of the country — the Garden State currently has 36 dispensaries selling legal weed to any adult over 21 years old — first responders are tiptoeing along a line between using a new drug, even medicinally, and the potential legal maladies that could come with it.
Much of the discussion has centered around police officers. Under federal law, a federal directive that prohibits firearms licenses being issued to any "unlawful user of or addicted to any controlled dangerous substance," even if that person is a card-carrying medical marijuana patient — or a recreational user — in their home state, since marijuana remains illegal on the federal level.
New Jersey Attorney General Matt Platkin has insisted that police officers are allowed to use cannabis while off-duty, like alcohol or medicinal drugs, as long as it doesn’t interfere with on-duty work. And drug tests are only applicable in certain circumstances, such as if an officer is assigned to a federal task force or holds a federally-regulated license (such as a pilot license or commercial driver’s license).
Police chiefs have criticized Platkin’s policy and pushed for legislation that would exclude police officers from the larger New Jersey marijuana legalization laws.
But often left out of the discussion are firefighters, EMTs and paramedics, where firearm possession isn’t part of the daily job but the physical and mental stresses are just as common.
“A lot of people are sick and tired of bending an elbow to relieve their pain,” Jensen said, referring to alcohol and prescription drug use. “If there’s something that can help with pain and stress and sleep, these people deserve to know about it.”
'It takes a toll'
Jensen spent six years working as a career EMT and firefighter while battling a sleep disorder, unable to fall asleep for a full night without nightmares. Years later, he’s able to characterize it as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder from the scenes where he’d responded — car crashes, fatal fires.
“It takes a toll, whether you know it or not," Jensen said.
He tried medical marijuana in 2018 and felt an immediate change — like 14 years of mental and physical stress was cured in five minutes, he said.
Today, Jensen owns Code 3 Outreach, an apparel company that sells merchandise catering to cannabis-using first responders and veterans. But what Jensen sees as the company's mission is educating first responders about the potential benefits of cannabis. He visits local fire companies and first aid squads across the state to answer questions about the drug and its effects, as well as his own experience using medical marijuana.
He's been surprised by the openness to the idea, but many departments remain skittish due to the murky legal waters surrounding cannabis.
Like any job, first responders can’t show up at work while under the influence. But unlike other substances, there isn’t a method for objectively determining whether someone is intoxicated from cannabis. And while police officers are under the Attorney General's purview, there's no overarching authority on fire companies and first aid squads to lay down the law.
It's become a hotbed issue, said Steve McConlogue, president of the Professional Firefighters Association of New Jersey, the state's largest firefighters union.
There's a lot of interest from younger members who want to use cannabis recreationally, whether it's at a party or simply to relax after a long day at work. And older firefighters are interested in the potential medical benefits.
McConlogue has experienced those firsthand: After he retired as a battalion chief in Elizabeth in May, he began using cannabis-infused gummies to help with pain from an old motorcycle accident. He "never slept better in (his) life."
"But nobody wants to be the test case," said Steve McConlogue, a retired Elizabeth battalion chief and president of the Professional Firefighters Association of New Jersey, the largest firefighters union in the state. "Everything has a case history, but there's no way to ask 'what happened last time this happened?'"
There's been a piecemeal approach so far. Some local contracts state that they'll defer to the Attorney General's police guidelines on unforeseen issues — but many of those were written even before cannabis was legalized. And while many fire departments have stopped including cannabis in random drug tests, it still requires them to bring in an impairment expert if someone is believed to be under the influence while on the job.
"I don't want my people going to work, getting on a firetruck or an ambulance, impaired. Ever," McConlogue said. "But we're crazy not to be embracing this. In years to come, this could be a benefit to first responders. But we're in the public eye, and it's about what people think."
Tony Correia, a former fire chief in Burlington and president of the New Jersey Fire Chiefs Association, doesn’t draw much of a distinction between cannabis, alcohol and any other drug. The only thing that matters is “functional fitness” – that a firefighter shows up for work ready to do the job, he said.
“There are multiple things that can cause fire and EMS personnel to not be functionally fit, and we’re not in a position to determine functional fitness,” Correia said. Instead, that determination can only be made by a medical professional if someone is believed to be under the influence.
But the source of that influence doesn’t have to be cannabis, Correia said. Staying awake for 24 hours – like many first responders do – can have the same effects on someone with a 1.0% blood alcohol level, he said.
“Most times, I don’t suspect fire or police or EMS workers have a real detailed discussion when they get issued medication. And there’s a lot of emotional stress – when your brain isn’t engaged and you’re not thinking about the job, you’re not functionally fit,” Correia said. “Instead of making that determination based just on alcohol or cannabis, you should look at the whole perspective.”
Last May, Sen. James Beach, Assemblyman Paul Moriarty and Assemblywoman Gabriela Mosquera introduced bills that would prohibit any paid first responders — including firefighters, EMTs, paramedics and 911 dispatchers — from engaging in any recreational use of cannabis, even while off-duty.
That bill hasn’t even had a committee hearing, but it has activists like Jensen spooked.
“I had to get out of the job because it was just way too stressful. It was controlling my life,” Jensen said. “But what if the stigma wasn’t there?”