One Baltimore #15, Highs & Lows

8/26/19

They told me in D.A.R.E. that smoking pot would have consequences, but did I listen? Well, at the time, yah, but later, naaahh. And now? It’s finally caught up to me… in the form of a month or so of paid vacation. Well, that and the degrading invasion of my life and body. I can live with it though. For the time being.

It all comes back to the Department car. See, I work for the city government (pretty sure I can talk about this publicly… HR said I could, anyway), and in order to drive city vehicles, like the one four-door Ford that my co-workers and I share to take to meetings, you have to take a stultifying two-day Safe Driver class. In return, you get a special yellow license. I had one for the past seven or eight years.

A couple of years ago, as best I can tell, having that card started to mean something else too — random drug tests. The City drug tests all potential hires at the start of employment, but then leaves you alone after that as long as you’re not having any problems… UNLESS you’re in a “sensitive class”, which now includes people with these licenses.

I found this out when a colleague, whom I’d encouraged to get one of the aforementioned licenses, revealed to me that he’d been tested three times in a year and a half. I was shocked by this, since I’d been around much longer than him and hadn’t been called up once. He’s Black, I’m not — was it a racial thing, I wondered?

But then, this year, I started getting the notices too. The first came back in January. I got through it fine. I should’ve turned in the license then, or gotten a medical card, or something, but I didn’t.

The second notice came last month. I knew there were things I could do to pass. But I had meetings that day, calls to make, and I was just so mad. I didn’t want to have to clear my schedule and jump through the system’s hoops and pretend I was “clean.” It didn’t feel right.

Maybe it was self-sabotage, maybe after so many years of often-frustrating office work I just wanted out, and if I couldn’t bring myself to quit, then letting them fire me would have to do. I don’t know, in the end, why I went in to Mercy Medical and took the test straight, knowing I wouldn’t pass, but that’s what I did.

Our HR rep broke the news to me and my boss a week and a half ago — positive for marijuana. I was suspended without pay for the next five days and would have to see a counselor who would determine when I could return to work.

My boss was distraught for me. I’d just gotten my annual performance review back and it was solid, yet we were told I’d have to be put on a one-year “Performance Improvement Plan” upon my return. I told her it was fine, I was fine, and I was, I didn’t even cry until I got out of the building, and then only for a second, and only out of sheer frustration.

The suspension went by quickly. Then, on Friday morning, it was time to see the counselor from the Employee Assistance Program. The city cares about its employees, you see — those who are found to have a substance abuse problem are given someone to talk to and work with on getting drug-free. It’s only after a second time getting caught that you get fired.

I sat across from the counselor and lied my ass off. Told him I was a very occasional user and that I should be perfectly capable of giving a clean urine sample now (I had a plan).
He seemed like a nice enough guy, quiet, tired. We talked about his role — he’s a licensed social worker who helps city employees through all sorts of problems from workplace bullying to grief. In this case, though, and he said this with a small and bitter laugh, he was playing the role of a probation officer. My heart went out to him as I saw that he wasn’t any happier than I was with this awful little dance.

He told me that he had to refer me to an “intensive outpatient treatment program” for addiction and gave me the number of a place in Towson. Normally they require twelve sessions, but he told me to tell them that I only needed to go for six, since it was just a little pot… I’d have to be insistent, he explained, since of course they get paid for each session.

Two hours, once per week. D.A.R.E. for grownups. They’d test me there. If I passed, they’d forward it to him. He’d then order another test from Mercy, and if I passed that too, I could go back to the office.

Of course, for a full year I’d have to continue seeing him once a month and submit to further tests, covering both drugs AND alcohol (from which I had to sign a contract promising to abstain), and a single positive result would be the end of my employment. He acknowledged that the alcohol thing didn’t exactly make a lot of sense under the circumstances, but y’know: it’s the policy.

He asked me if I had any further questions. “I’m not sure,” I said, “can I think about it for a minute?” He said that was fine, and turned to his computer. I took out my phone and looked up examples of times my plan had failed other people. After ten minutes or so, I spoke up.

“So, I lied to you before. I’m a very regular marijuana user. A bowl in the evenings, often more on the weekends with friends. It’s definitely still in my system [in daily users, THC can remain detectable via urinalysis for months after your last use]. I was going to fake the test, but I’m stressed as hell about it. What do you think?”

Sometimes, he said, at the program in Towson, they watch you give your sample. Ok. Ok, so what do I do?

Well, he said, go to the program. They don’t expect you to be clean at first. As long as the levels in your system are going down over time, you’re ok, and once it’s all out, you can go back to work. In the meantime, did I have PTO I could use? I did, a huge pile of unused sick time.

And so I find myself here, in involuntary paid staycation land. I talked to my bosses, divided up responsibility for the tasks I’d been performing. I asked if I could put the reason for my absence in my out-of-office message, but our HR rep said no, scandalized at the suggestion. “What, are you embarrassed?” I wanted to ask, but held myself back.

I started smoking regularly a few years ago to deal with insomnia. I didn’t realize how much being chronically sleep deprived was messing me up until I wasn’t any more. Thankfully, I’ve worked out some better sleep hygiene habits since then and mostly get enough rest these days without chemical help, but I found that I greatly value how weed helps me smooth out the endless chatter of my thoughts.

It’s been especially useful for writing, for getting to a space where ideas flow and connect. It’s going to be weird, writing the column sober. I can do this, though. I don’t want to, but I can, and I will. For now.

I want to challenge the city policy. Other people have done so in other places, sometimes successfully. Yes, I signed an agreement saying I’d be drug free throughout my employment, no I’m not sanctioned by the state to be using. But if I’m not ever high at work (which I never have been — it would be obvious), if I haven’t been in any accidents, and especially after we’ve chosen as a city to decriminalize this substance… then how is it anything but an enormous waste of time and resources to insist that I DO have a problem, to make me prove again and again that the contents of my receptors pass inspection?

I can take or leave this job, I know I’ll be ok. But that’s not the case for everyone — I’m sure there are a lot of city workers with kids to feed who also find that recreational marijuana improves their lives and helps them get through the stress of life in 2019 without the long list of side effects and the high price tag of sanctioned pharmaceuticals. Maybe we can use this opportunity to make a change — anyone know a good lawyer? I reached out to NORML, they have a list, but I’m open to suggestions.

In the meantime, after the initial shock, I’m actually excited about the next month. While this whole thing is a bit of a nightmare, it’s also a bit of a dream come true. How many times have I wished with all my heart that I just had some room to breathe and think and plan? And now here it is.

Ever since the border trip (https://one-baltimore.org/2019/07/15/one-baltimore-10-borders/), I’ve been doing my best to get the lay of the land locally when it comes to immigration issues. I’ve been out to a couple of trainings with CASA, one with SURJ Baltimore and one with Guerrilla Theatre Front, and I’m having coffee with a really cool organizer soon. People are excited about the idea of Baltimore for Border Justice, we need to move it to reality.

I’m also really excited that these groups are all talking about police issues — local control of BPD is on everyone’s radar. We could be a sanctuary city if we had local control of our police; since they’re a state agency and we’re not a sanctuary state, they currently cooperate with ICE, but that could change this upcoming state legislative session. Now is the time.

#OneBaltimore #LegalizeWeed #LocalControl #BaltimoreForBorderJustice #FreeKeithDavisJr

Cultural Event of the Week: This Friday-Sunday, 8/30-9/1, is the second annual Black Femme Supremacy Film Fest at The SNF Parkway / Maryland Film Festival, featuring over 50 films in a wide range of genres made by Black Femme filmmakers. This year’s theme is “Access”, and the two weekend days will feature special collections by Baltimoreans.https://www.facebook.com/events/1395205353979639/

Green Event of the Week: You know who you might not expect to throw one heck of a party, but totally does? TreeBaltimore, the Department of Recreation & Parks program responsible for growing our tree canopy. TB’s Annual Summer Gathering is this Wednesday evening, 8/28, at the beautiful Cylburn Arboretum, and it’s really worth checking out. Learn, meet cool people, snag free food and drinks, and enjoy live music and art by local performers.https://www.facebook.com/events/2795155570497816/

Song of the Week: “Evolve” by Ani Difranco

Now let’s get talking reefer madness / Like some arrogant government can’t / By any stretch of the imagination / Outlaw a plant / Yes, their supposed authority over nature / Is a dream / C’mon people / We’ve got to come clean

Leonard Spooky Cohen the cat, who’s going to be getting a lot more daytime attention over the next few weeks.

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