Legislator calls for workplace protections on pot

RYAN HUTTON/ Staff file photo  Bernadette Coughlin was fired from her job after testing positive for marijuana use. A state senator told Coughlin she will consider a bill on workplace protections for recreational marijuana users.

BOSTON — It won't get her job back, but Bernadette Coughlin said the potential for a bill being filed in the Massachusetts Legislature providing workplace protections for recreational pot users is a significant step forward.

Coughlin, 55, of Methuen, lost her management job with a food service contractor at Holy Family Hospital in Methuen, for smoking marijuana off the work site. Fired earlier this summer after a workplace fall that led to a drug test, the self-described "work mom" turned workers advocate has spent the past few months trying to get workplace protections for recreational pot users.

"It keeps coming into my head, they can just do this," said Coughlin. "I'm just afraid, and it almost happened to me, that people will lie and try to cover up an injury because they're afraid of something they did a week ago."

On Tuesday, Coughlin — who has been on a monthslong tour meeting with legislators and leaders tasked with rolling out the legal marijuana industry in the state — met with state Sen. Patricia Jehlen, D-Somerville, co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Marijuana Policy, at her office in the Statehouse.

Jehlen said Coughlin's story might provide the committee an opportunity to take up the issue of workplace protections.

"Now it's time I think to look at (company policies). I think Bernadette going public gives us an opportunity that we didn't have before."

Jehlen said Coughlin's story highlights two policy issues: the need for scientifically accepted testing for marijuana impairment; and the need for worker protections against employer overreach into their personal lives. 

"What part of your private life outside of work is important for the employer to know and to discipline you for, if it's not affecting your work?" she said.

Jehlen said she is considering a host of options to ensure protections for recreational users.

"Her telling her story is hopefully going to make some companies look at their policies, and make sure they have some relationship to reality," she said, noting that she and her colleagues would take a look at the constraints some companies may have under federal law.

Coughlin was fired from a position with Sodexo, a multinational company that has contracts with hospitals, universities, corporations and the U.S. government. The company's policies indicated it operated under federal law, where marijuana is still illegal.

"Some companies may have some constraints we don't know about, we want to be careful, and we want to write a comprehensive bill," Jehlen said.

Since the Legislature just ended its session for the year, any possible legislation would not be filed until the new session at the beginning of next year.

"I never thought that what happened to me would be brought into this spotlight, but if it helps somebody in the future I'm happy to do it now," said Coughlin.