Florida high school official fired for using legal medical marijuana

Published on November 24, 2020

When a fight broke out among students at Belleview High School in central Florida, school official Mike Hickman entered the fray and put his body on the line to intervene. Nothing in the school’s administrative code tasked him with risking himself to secure his students’ safety, but he did so anyway.

A school official’s good deed didn’t go unpunished: He was fired after stepping in to stop a schoolyard fight.

A Marine combat veteran who suffered serious injuries while serving in the 1990-1991 Gulf War, Hickman has spent the past thirty years living with chronic pain from those wounds—and from a string of surgeries he underwent to heal them. For a time he relied on prescribed opioids for relief, but then found cannabis worked far better. He could gain relief without the serious side effects—and risk of addiction and overdose—that came with opioid use.

Hickman performed his job at Belleview—where he worked as the school’s student services manager—admirably, for years, while privately managing his medical condition.

Then came the schoolyard fight.

Punished for his good deed

It happened a year ago, in Nov. 2019.

While breaking up the brawl, Hickman suffered a new injury—one serious enough to require a visit to a worker’s compensation doctor. Acting on behalf of his employer, that doctor required him to submit a urine sample. The sample wasn’t part of Hickman’s treatment. Its only purpose was to test for drug use.

When the urine test came back positive for THC, Hickman’s 10 years of service to Marion County Public Schools ended. The Marion County School Board fired Mike Hickman, pointing to district policy prohibiting employees from using cannabis for any reason, even if that use takes place off school grounds and at the recommendation of a physician.

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District officials offered to limit his punishment to a suspension if Hickman ended his use of medical cannabis. Forced to choose between his career as an educator and the medicine that secures his quality of life, Hickman chose his medicine.

Mike Hickman’s medication is legal according to state law. But it’s against school district policy.

Medical cannabis has been legal in Florida since 2016, when 71% of voters approved a state constitutional amendment allowing doctors to recommend it to their patients. And according to a 2019 article from MJ Biz Daily, business is now “booming, with an average of nearly two dispensaries opening each week across the state.”

There’s no disputing the legality of Mike Hickman’s cannabis use under state law. Nor does anyone allege that he came to work impaired, or that he failed in any way to perform his official duties with the utmost skill and professionalism.

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But after months of hearings and legal wrangling, none of that mattered. On Nov. 4, the Marion Public School Board voted 5-0 to terminate his employment.

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What about the children?

Hickman has declined to discuss the case publicly. Shortly after the school board’s Nov. 4 decision, Hickman’s attorney, Mark Herdman, told a local reporter the action “was just another unfortunate decision handed down by the Marion County School Board to fire yet another good employee.”

But to lose your employment, including your place in the lives of countless young people who look up to you as an educator, a mentor, and a pillar of the community, goes far beyond a simple job loss. Seeing someone who served his country with honor, and was wounded in the field of battle, be sacked for choosing a safe, effective medicine exposes a terrible hypocrisy at the heart of the War on Drugs.

For decades, America’s weed warriors have justified their destructive prohibition against a beneficial plant by appealing to the fate of “the children.” What message, they ask, would it send to allow a combat veteran to smoke a joint or use a cannabis salve in the privacy of his own home instead of popping dangerous, addictive pills?

The real question is what lesson will Mike Hickman’s students learn from a society that publicly shames and summarily dismisses an upstanding citizen for something that should be nobody’s business but his own.

A cannabis Catch-22

Contacted by Leafly, several school board members directed questions to Kevin Christian, the district’s head of public relations.

District officials scrambled to find a way to justify Hickman’s firing. At issue is a long-outdated zero-tolerance policy for a medication that’s now legal.

At first Christian tried to frame the issue as Hickman’s failure to disclose his use of medical cannabis to school authorities prior to failing his drug test—“that’s really a big portion of what the school board expressed concern over”—though he eventually conceded that nothing in the school board’s policy would have prevented Hickman from being fired on the spot for simply making such a disclosure.

In fact, that policy specifically lists marijuana among prohibited substances, with no consideration of whether it’s legal under state law. This zero-tolerance approach to maintaining a “drug free workplace” has remained unaltered for decades. The school board failed to update the district’s policies in any way following the legalization of medical cannabis in Florida four years ago.

School board hiding behind federal law

Even now, the school board says the fact that cannabis remains federally illegal prevents them for making any further allowances, since public schools receive federally funding that could theoretically be cut off if they permit even a single exception.

Back in 2019, a committee in the US House of Representatives directed the Office of Personnel Management to review policies surrounding the hiring and firing of federal employees in states with legal cannabis, writing:

The Committee encourages OPM to review its policies and guidelines regarding hiring and firing of individuals who use marijuana in states where that individual’s private use of marijuana is not prohibited under the law of the State. These policies should reflect updated changes to the law on marijuana usage and clearly state the impact of marijuana usage on Federal employment.

But so far, no such action has been taken at the federal level.

Meanwhile in Florida, a bill “prohibiting an employer from taking adverse personnel action against an employee or job applicant who is a qualified patient using medical marijuana” was introduced in early 2020, but died in committee.

Stuck in one of Florida’s medical marijuana deserts? Help may be on the way

The next employee may ignore the fight

The Marion County School Board voted unanimously to terminate him despite overwhelming support for Hickman from students, faculty, parents, and the Marion Education Association, a local teachers union.

“Imagine if this employee just sat back and let the two students continue to fight without regard for their safety,” Chris Altobello, Marion Education Association executive director, told the Ocala Star-Banner newspaper after Hickman’s firing. “We wouldn’t be here right now.”

Hickman, Altobello added, was no more impaired “than someone who took an aspirin for a headache. They implied that this is tantamount to smoking pot in the boys bathroom!”

Lazy policy results in a good man’s firing

Eventually a review process landed the case before Judge Suzanne Van Wyk of the state Division of Administrative Hearings in Tallahassee. Wyk upheld Hickman’s firing, though not without reservations.

In an eight-page decision, Van Wyk noted Hickman’s argument that it’s unfair to punish someone for using legal medical cannabis when the school board would not object to him “teaching under the influence of opioid pain medications, which he took for years prior to the availability of medical marijuana.”

Still, the best deal offered to Hickman was to stop using cannabis and return to work after a 20-day suspension. Or, put another way: Keep suffering in pain; or take dangerous, addictive pills; or lose your job.

Mike Hickman chose his health and lost his job.

That’s a choice nobody should ever face.

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David Bienenstock
David Bienenstock
Veteran cannabis journalist David Bienenstock is the author of "How to Smoke Pot (Properly): A Highbrow Guide to Getting High" (2016 - Penguin/Random House), and the co-host and co-creator of the podcast "Great Moments in Weed History with Abdullah and Bean." Follow him on Twitter @pot_handbook.
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