Woman claims she was fired for inhaling second-hand pot smoke

Woman claims she was fired for inhaling second-hand pot smoke

SEATTLE -- You can't get drunk if the person next to you is overdoing it with the booze.  But what if they were smoking pot? The consequences of breathing their second-hand smoke could lead to your firing or even a DUI.

"I was fired," said Cheryl Hale, who worked for a major retail corporation for 16 years before getting fired after a drug test. 

By her account, she was a premier employee having rarely taken a sick day. That was until she got hurt on the job 18 months ago.

"Standard procedure when you get hurt is you get swabbed, no biggie," she said. "But when the clinic told me that I tested positive for marijuana, I began arguing with the doctor saying he made a mistake."

Hale said she doesn't smoke marijuana or use it in another form. The only one who smokes pot is her husband, Edwin Blake. The two live together in the cramped quarters of a 27-foot long motor home, a virtual smokers hotbox in Tumwater.  Edwin admits to being a heavy marijuana smoker for his back pain.

"I was fired for testing positive for marijuana even though mine was from second hand smoke," Hale said.

Many companies have a zero tolerance policy for employees who test positive for marijuana. Hale said her company has that policy but there is no clause if the employee claims it's from breathing second-hand pot smoke.

"There is this huge grey area where there's a lot of people who are contaminated from second-hand smoke," Hale said. "Companies need to realize that it's not just black and white anymore."

Hale is still trying to return to her job.  Since the positive test, the couple has been forced to sell their car, drain their savings and cash in Hale's 401K retirement account.

"I was crushed. I felt like something had just died. I collapsed on the floor when I found out," she said.

The Problem solvers wanted to find out for ourselves to see how easy it is to test positive from second hand smoke. To duplicate Hale's experience, I used an oral drug test similar to the one used on Hale to prove there was no THC in my system. The test has a threshold of 10 milligrams of active THC for a positive test. 

I then sat in the cramp confines of the bedroom Cheryl shares with her husband while he smoked marijuana from a pipe. Up until Hale's drug test, she would sleep while Edwin smoked at night in the bedroom. She was exposed to second-hand marijuana smoke for hours on a regular basis.

After an hour of breathing second hand smoke, I used the oral swab to test my THC level.  It registered positive for THC in my system. If I was subject to a random drug test after my exposure to Edwin's smoke, I most likely would have been fired.  Hale was fired following the oral test and a blood test that showed she had trace amounts of TCH in her blood.

But the Problem Solvers wanted to take the experiment one step further. Would it be possible to get a "contact high" and reach the state's new automatic DUI level, just from breathing second hand pot smoke.

Initiative 502 set a per se limit of 5 nanograms per milliliter of Tetrahydocannabinol or THC in the blood. Delta 9 THC is the active ingredient that makes people high.  Go over 5 nanograms in blood test, you are legally impaired in the eyes of the state. A "per se limit" is legalese for saying a person is "legally impaired".

Most people are familiar with the blood alcohol limit of .08, the per se limit for driving under the influence of alcohol. But the former state toxicologist, Dr. Barry Logan, said you can't compare the legal impairment level of 5 nanograms of THC for pot to the .08 blood alcohol limit.

"There's no way to equate a blood marijuana level to an equivalent level of impairment with same level of confidence that there is with alcohol," said Logan, who is now the Director of Toxicology and Forensic Science for NMS Labs in Pennsylvania.  

That's because there are not as many studies on levels of impairment with marijuana as there are with alcohol.

We enlisted the help of several medical marijuana users and met for a smoke out in a room adjacent to Urban Medicinals, a medical marijuana access point in Olympia. Eight people smoke a variety of fairly intense weed for an hour while I casually breathed their marijuana smoke. 

We then stepped it up a notch. Several of the smokers piled into the back of a limousine for a drive around Olympia.  As they puffed away on joints and vaporizers, I breathed their second hand pot smoke. Granted, it was an intense exposure, sometimes called a "hotbox," but we were trying to see if a 5 nanogram second hand high could be reached.

"I have no idea what a 5 nanogram high feels like," said one longtime marijuana user in the limo.

"I have no clue what my THC levels are after I smoke, that's why I don't drive because of the uncertainty," said another user.

Logan said there are no studies "that really show somebody would get over the 5 nanogram level in their blood from passive exposure."  But he admits it is possible under intense circumstances like we are trying to produce.

After an hour inside limo, I left and headed to the PACLAB clinic in Olympia for a blood draw. The results showed I had a Delta 9 THC level of 1.1 nanograms per milliliter, below the state's legal impairment limit of 5 nanograms.

But there is the twist Washingtonians new to the effects of marijuana should know. THC in the blood falls of dramatically within minutes of the last inhale compared to alcohol which stays in your blood much longer.

"THC levels can fall as much as 60 percent in the first 15 minutes and then by as much as 80 percent in the first 30 minutes after a person stops smoking," Logan said.

After accounting for the one hour delay from the time I left the limo to my blood draw, the THC levels could have been 5.5 nanograms when I left the limo, above the state's DUI limit.  Also, the THC will stay in my blood possibly for three days at very low levels. For a regular heavy smoker, Logan said the THC could remain in the blood for several weeks.

Logan believe the new DUI limit for marijuana is too high to be truly effective.

"I think it's too high for a per se level," he said. "You're going to miss allot of people who have elevated THC levels while they're driving if you have a per se level of 5 nanograms and that one to two hour time interval of collection."

A typical blood draw for a suspected driver under the influence is between 1 to 2 hours after they've been pulled over. Logan said a driver can still appear to be impaired even if their THC levels have fallen below the new DUI limit. That's is what makes Washington's 5 nanogram per se limit controversial.

"We know that a person under the influence of alcohol when their blood alcohol levels are the highest. It's the inverse for marijuana," said Paul Armanton from NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

But don't expect lawmakers in Olympia to review the 5 nanogram limit anytime soon.

"Yeah, there are some holes in the law," said Roger Goodman, Chairman of the state Senate Public Safety Committee. "They are going to hang around for a while because we are not going to be amending the initiative for at least another couple of years."

That means state residents need to be aware of the consequences of the company they keep and what they may be smoking.  Their high may be your downfall.