The Fire Officer’s Guide to the Tough Community Questions, Part 6

Photo courtesy of Horsma/Hamppuforum.  

By Mark Wallace

Elected officials, key stakeholders, and the media often ask questions that put fire officials on the defensive for proposals or operational practices. They expect us to have a logical and compelling explanation to all of their questions and at a moment’s notice. Therefore, it is helpful to consider answers to their questions in advance.

The “tough” question for this article in the series is:

“What are you going to do when a firefighter tests positive for marijuana in a world of legal, recreation, and medical marijuana use?”

Today, 23 states as well as Washington, D.C., have some form of legalized marijuana use, and four states (Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington) and Washington, D.C., have approved recreational possession and use of differing amounts of pot.
Join the panel as they have a discussion on the CBD oil craze and how it may be impacting our firefighters. 

Our personnel are being exposed to marijuana. This is not a new problem. As our personnel respond to emergencies, they will be exposed to “second-hand” marijuana smoke at a minimum. As marijuana use becomes easier and more prevalent in the general public, exposures will occur to our personnel. Some have used marijuana in the past, and more will knowingly or unknowingly inhale or consume products containing the major psychoactive ingredient of marijuana: delta-g-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

A big question is whether or not we have a mechanism to differentiate an on-the-job incidental exposure to marijuana/THC. After a firefighter is involved in an accident, all firefighters involved are often required to submit to a drug test. If the test results come up positive for THC in the sample, how can we determine if it was an intentional or unintentional exposure? As more and more marijuana smoke exposures occur, this will become a bigger and bigger issue.

Firefighters could experience severe marijuana exposure when fighting a fire in a structure that contains a grow site. Many instances of indoor grow sites (mostly illegal in the past) have resulted in a fire because of heat lamps, extension cords, overloaded circuits, and other circumstances. As medical and recreational uses expand, the frequency of structure fires containing marijuana plants will increase.

There will be a time, if it has not occurred already, that elected officials will realize that all first responders will be entering areas during an emergency that have a significant amount of marijuana smoke. Second-hand smoke has been a factor for years, and it is becoming a far more frequent occurrence because of the recent changes in state laws and increasing acceptance of marijuana use. Second-hand smoke may be the most obvious exposure, but we now have to think about other unintentional or even intentional exposure to THC.

How can we determine if a positive test for marijuana is a consequence of inadvertent exposure to it during an emergency incident or if the positive test is the result of intentional use of marijuana or products containing THC?

RELATED: Hertzel on Marijuana Grow OperationsLukus on Denver’s Legalized Marijuana IndustryGustin on the Hazards of Grow Houses

Several studies, including those conducted by the University of California—San Francisco and John Hopkins University, have shown that you probably can’t fail a drug test from inhaling second-hand marijuana smoke. Although pot has gotten more and more potent in recent years, the typical second-hand exposure of less than 20 nanograms of 9-carboxy-THC has been the result. Many policies consider a positive test to be at or above 50 nanograms in the test sample. So, contact your department’s laboratory regarding its capabilities of quantifying drug test samples and review them in tandem with your current policies.

It is unlikely that a positive test at a level above 50 nanograms is the result of second-hand exposure to marijuana. Today, however, more investigation is required to determine unintentional exposures or intentional use. The facts or circumstances of the incidents to which we respond must be thoroughly investigated and documented.

The consequences of a positive test for illegal drugs are likely included in your department’s policies. But, has your policy kept up with the changes in state law or technology? Review your policies in light of the changes in the laws. Pose the question to an appropriate medical expert such as your department’s medical director and refer to your legal counsel. The International Association of Fire Chiefs and the International Association of Fire Fighters have additional resources that to which you may refer and compare to your organization’s policies.

Community members often bring food to their local firefighters such as during holidays, after a major incident, or for a variety of other occasions. However, police departments have been far more skeptical of such donations in the past years than fire departments. Rethink this practice because since marijuana laced food products are now so prevalent in so many states. There have been past incidents when “secret” ingredients have been added to the donated food (for a variety of reasons and under a wide range of circumstances). As a consequence, rethink policies and weigh the risk from the 99 percent of goodwill donations local fire stations receive because community members want to do something nice for their firefighters and express their sincere thanks. Also, consider if the risk of receiving such gifts outweigh the goodwill received when someone in the community drops by cookies, candy, cakes, or even full meals. Even if 99.9 percent of such food donations are high quality and without unwanted contamination or a “secret ingredient,” how do you tell which donation is the 00.1 percent that has a “surprise” inside.

This article has considered unintentional or non-preventable exposures to marijuana, but what happens when a firefighter receives a prescription to use medical-grade marijuana for chronic pain or some other situation? Prescriptions are now becoming more and more frequent, and some firefighters have valid prescriptions for medical marijuana. Although our policies prohibit the use of marijuana, what happens when its recreational use is legal in your jurisdiction? Does that mean that your firefighters can use pot or products containing the active ingredients of marijuana?  

The simple answer may be “no.” How the policies of your department are impacted by the changes in marijuana laws is an issue you should consider with your legal counsel. A positive test today is no longer the definitive determinant of drug use. More investigation is needed when an initial drug test comes up positive for marijuana. It is no longer a simple issue, and you can expect some really tough questions about this issue in the future, so be prepared in advance.


Mark Wallace (MPA, EFO, CFO, FIFireE) is the author of Fire Department Strategic Planning: Creating Future Excellence. He is the former State Fire Marshal of Oregon and a former chief in Colorado and Texas. He currently operates Fireeagle Consulting ( He wrote the planning chapter in the 7th edition Fire Chief’s Handbook, which was released in fall 2014.


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