This story first appeared in The Investigator, a weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA featuring the best investigative and accountability journalism from across Pennsylvania. Sign up for free here.
Our months-long investigation into employment protections for medical marijuana patients began with an email about a failed drug test.
After a drug screening indicated he had used marijuana, Philadelphia Gas Works employee Todd Douglas told me he faced a troubling choice: Give up a doctor-approved drug that provided pain relief, or risk his job. As our reporting explained, Douglas fought the drug test and won. Other medical marijuana patients weren’t so lucky.
When I started working on the investigation, two questions surfaced: How many people find themselves in Douglas’ situation? And what happens to them?
There’s no simple answer, but I used a number of techniques to understand the issue. I did a lot of interviews with advocates and attorneys, of course. But I knew not everyone would want to talk — and confidentiality agreements could pose problems for some if they did. We wanted to understand those situations, too.
I analyzed about 20 medical marijuana employment cases, filed dozens of open records requests, and reviewed thousands of pages of public records. All of these steps were necessary to understand how decisions made by lawmakers in Harrisburg and Washington, D.C., affect hundreds of thousands of patients across the state. Here’s a look at some of the tools we used to understand the scope and the stakes in Pennsylvania.
Federal court lawsuits: RECAP Archive is a searchable collection of millions of documents from federal court cases. I used the collection to find Pennsylvania lawsuits with the phrase “Medical Marijuana Act,” which netted about 30 cases. I then read each case to figure out whether the dispute was over an employment issue. That narrowed the pool down to about a dozen.
RECAP didn’t have all the case records, so Spotlight PA paid for additional documents directly from the federal court system. The records we bought are now available on RECAP for anyone to view for free.
State court lawsuits: The state’s court system lets you search the content of opinions from appellate courts, so I looked for ones with potentially relevant phrases. Searching for “Medical Marijuana Act,” for instance, led to more than 60 results. I then went through each case and found a few that dealt with workplace issues, including the rights of medical marijuana patients to collect unemployment benefits.
Open records requests: Most of the employment disputes I found in court records involved private companies, but some included public agencies.
I obtained employment records, drug and alcohol policies, and even a few settlement agreements using the state’s Right-to-Know Law. In one of those cases, a fired worker agreed to keep the settlement “strictly confidential” — or face legal action.
How we decided which cases to include: After analyzing court cases, some trends emerged: Employees can be punished even without failing a drug test. Attorneys for workers and businesses often fight over the potential safety risks of certain jobs. Federal drug testing rules are frequently unclear or in dispute. And fired workers can run into other problems, such as trouble collecting unemployment benefits.
The people we included in the story illustrated those trends across the state.
We reached out to people involved in about 20 of the cases we found, plus other experts and advocates. Not all of the workers we contacted wanted to talk. Still, we made phone calls, sent emails, and mailed letters to ensure workers, employers, and attorneys had an opportunity to share their perspective.
What’s next: We’re still investigating. I’ve recently heard from doctors, patients, and others who described problems with the state’s medical marijuana program. And I want to hear from more. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 717-421-2518.
I’ve stayed in touch with Douglas, too. The day the investigation was published, he wrote to me that it was “tough to see other people being jammed up over this.” He hopes his story can help patients get some clearer protections.
WHILE YOU’RE HERE… If you learned something from this story, pay it forward and become a member of Spotlight PA so someone else can in the future at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundations and readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.