Marion County Teacher, Veteran Appeals Termination For Medical Marijuana Use

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WUFT | Gabriella Paul | august 5, 2020

Michael Hickman, 50, logged on to his virtual administrative court hearing against the Marion County School Board on Wednesday morning. 

The hearing is the latest development in an ongoing debate on the legitimacy of Hickman’s termination from Belleview High School, after a failed drug test in November, for the use of medical marijuana.

The U.S. Marine Corps veteran, bald and broad-shouldered, readjusted his patterned red tie, pixelated over Zoom. Judge Suzanne Van Wyk sipped from her styrofoam cup labeled Dunkin.

At 9 a.m., she called the court to order.

In November, the former dean sustained a minor shoulder reinjury after subduing a fight that broke out in the school courtyard. At the insistence of the principal, Hickman completed a routine medical evaluation but subsequently failed the school-administered drug test, testing positive for cannabinoids. On account of the district’s zero-tolerance drug-free workplace policy, Hickman was fired in January. 

Within 30 days of today’s hearing, as is typical in an appeal to administrative court, the presiding judge will issue a recommendation. In this case, that means Judge Van Wyk will help guide the school board’s official decision on Hickman’s termination.

The hourlong hearing on Wednesday included cross-examination of both Hickman and the head of district employee relations, Jaycee Oliver. 

When prompted, Hickman described his medical history for the court, under oath, and why he started using medical marijuana in 2018:

A decorated war hero of the U.S. Marine Corps, Hickman was medevaced out of Kuwait during Desert Storm in the spring of 1991 after suffering a 13-foot fall from an assault amphibious vehicle mid-combat. In the 30 years since, he has endured 24 surgeries and developed post-traumatic stress disorder, for which he used to cope with prescribed opioids, but now finds better relief with medical marijuana. For Hickman, that looks like taking two pills every night — at the recommendation of his doctor — to help him sleep.  

Halfway through the hearing, though, it was obvious the true disagreement did not lay in the facts of his termination or even that Hickman’s medical history warrants a pain-relieving remedy. 

Instead, the discrepancy boiled down to the contradiction between state and federal policy on medical marijuana; the state of Florida legalized its use in 2016, yet it remains federally illegal. 

This statutory contradiction leaves employers, especially those under the umbrella of government, in a bind. Many school boards, like that of Marion County, lean on outdated language in fear that green-lighting a policy that breaks federal law will jeopardize funding.

Under oath, Oliver said, “If we do not comply with all federal laws … we are in danger of losing our funding.”

While under cross-examination by Mark Herdman, Hickman’s attorney, Oliver later said she doesn’t know of any specific examples where federal funding has actually been rescinded from school districts on those grounds. 

Hickman reiterated his willingness to resign if, or when, federal funding to the district is threatened on account of his owning a medical marijuana card.

Hickman’s conundrum — being stuck in a bureaucratic quandary of marijuana policy — is not unique. He is not the first Floridian to be fired for legally using medical marijuana. 

But he might yet be the first domino in a statewide push to realign workplace drug and alcohol policy with Florida law.