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ATCEMS removes prior cannabis use as a disqualifier for applicants

With a staffing shortage ongoing, the Austin EMS union president said the policy was disqualifying out-of-state applicants who use marijuana legally.

TRAVIS COUNTY, Texas — Austin-Travis County EMS revised its job application by removing a disqualification for prior marijuana use in hopes of increasing applicants as they struggle to fill positions.

Saving lives isn't an easy job. The president of the Austin EMS union, Selena Xie, said doing it short-staffed is even harder.

"It's really bad right now," said Xie. "We're about 80 paramedics down." 

After partnering with Texas Norml, putting together a petition and sending thousands of letters to the Austin City Council and EMS Interim Chief Jasper Brown, Xie said the City gave them the green light in late October to change the policy.

She said the old policy was deterring out-of-state applicants where marijuana use is legal.

"We didn't want Texans and people from all over this country to be not allowed to work for our department because of legal use," said Xie.

The previous policy disqualified applicants who used marijuana in the last three years.

"I know that at least two people are going to apply that would have been barred from applying for up to two more years," said Xie.

Xie said applicants still have to pass a drug test and paramedics are subject to random drug testing. While most cannabis is still illegal in Texas, it was decriminalized in Travis County.

Xie said the policy change won't completely fix their staffing issue, only competitive salaries can do that. Still, it could get them closer to their goal of allowing medics to use cannabis for heightened PTSD.

"So you always have to have your guard up," said Xie. "We're seeing so many sicker people. We're seeing a lot of people die from COVID and having to do CPR on them in the field."

Earlier this year, the state legislature expanded the compassionate use program so patients with PTSD can use medical cannabis.

Xie is waiting to hear back from the City about EMS being allowed to use THC with a prescription.

"I would prefer somebody to have a prescription for THC than to have a prescription for heavy narcotics and other sedatives," said Xie.

If EMS workers get the green light, Xie said paramedics wouldn't be allowed to use cannabis eight hours before their shift.

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