Thoughts on Marijuana

I suppose someone could get the wrong idea by reading the title of this column. These are not my thoughts while on marijuana, but rather my opinions about some of the issues we now face in Oregon regarding marijuana. Regardless of our personal opinions, marijuana is now a legal product in Oregon that is currently available through medical marijuana dispensaries or by growing your own plants. Marijuana use or possession remains a crime under federal law, and there is no workplace protection for anyone using marijuana on or off the job. Smoking marijuana outside of a private residence remains an infraction in Oregon, and there are likely to be further regulations in the next legislative session that will try to deal with legal smoke migrating from one residence to another, among other things.

Further complicating the picture is the whole issue of trying to determine when someone is impaired by marijuana. The stuff apparently stays in our systems well beyond the point where it actually affects our cognitive functions, so I’m guessing there will be a fair amount of court activity around the issue of whether someone was stoned or not when they drove their car into a ditch (or anything else). In the same way the City would investigate whether alcohol is a factor in any work-related accident, we will look to see whether marijuana is involved. During the past year, I am aware of two cases where alcohol use led to problems for employees and two cases where marijuana was the culprit. As much as I would like to believe everyone knows this, recent experience tells me we need to remind ourselves that coming to work under the influence is a bad idea that threatens the safety of coworkers, the public, and ourselves.

Writing this column after listening to about three hours of testimony and discussion about regulating marijuana businesses may also be a bad idea. I’ve heard more about the subject than I really wanted to know, although I acknowledge there are valid points on both sides of the debate. I do not believe marijuana is the root of all evil, nor do I believe it is a miracle plant that cures everything from cancer to kidney stones. As I wrote last week, my opinion on a law is essentially irrelevant unless I find it so objectionable that I feel the need to resign in protest. I believe our Council has honestly wrestled with the issue and represents the deep divisions within the community. The Council chose to allow medical marijuana dispensaries when most Oregon city councils prohibited them, and now the Council has voted to ban the sale of recreational marijuana at medical dispensaries. Only the voters of Albany can enact a permanent ban, and they may have the opportunity to decide that issue in the November 2016 election. In the meantime, those of us charged with enforcing and administering an array of confusing and sometimes conflicting laws will continue to do so without fear or favor.

Sinking the Lusitania

I learned early this week that an old friend and colleague was fired from his job as a city manager after serving his community for more than 18 years. I was saddened to hear the news and was struck by some similarities to a situation I am currently reading about in the book, Dead Wake, which recounts the sinking of the passenger ship Lusitania in World War I.

The captain of the Lusitania, William Turner, was a highly experienced officer with a long and distinguished record in his profession. Like my colleague, he demonstrated not only skillful management, but also successful leadership that included some bold initiatives. Unfortunately for Captain Turner, he was placed in a dangerous situation by circumstances largely beyond his control and then singled out for blame by people who arguably were far more culpable than he was for the loss of his ship. Captain Turner was ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing after a thorough and grueling investigation. The judge who decided the case observed that Captain Turner was a, “brave but unlucky man.” I’m not sure I completely agree with that analysis because the Captain stayed on the bridge of his ship until it went underwater and then was lucky enough to bob to the surface as it went down. He then survived an extended dunking in 55° water before being pulled aboard a lifeboat. Some people never forgave the captain for surviving the attack on his ship when more than 1,000 other innocent victims did not.

Accepting a leadership position means assuming both explicit and implicit responsibilities. Explicitly, people expect leaders to achieve goals and competently perform their duties while observing generally accepted rules of conduct. Implicitly, leaders are often expected to take the blame for failures real or imagined regardless of their role in the matter. Highly paid CEO’s in the private sector often use this rationale to explain salaries that, in some cases, may be several hundred times higher than those of the average workers in their company. Captain Turner and my friend accepted this implicit responsibility as part of the price of doing and enjoying important work.

The city my colleague managed did not sink after his 18 years as manager, but rather seems to be doing better today than it has at any time in its long history. The city council provided no explanation to the public about their decision, so it’s hard to know why they felt the need for change. Captain Turner went on to command other ships, and I’m confident my friend will find plenty of opportunities to serve as a city manager. Character and ability overcomes difficulties in life, including unfair and self-serving attempts to blame others for random misfortune or contrived failure.

Our Conscience vs. Our Jobs

City managers who are lucky enough to have long careers share an understanding that they are hired to carry out the will of the elected officials who appoint them. I have seen a number of colleagues lose sight of that principle and, consequently, lose their jobs in unpleasant ways. I can think of only two occasions in my career where I’ve had to ask myself if I was willing to do what a council was asking of me. In both cases, I understood that if I was unwilling to follow the council’s direction, I would need to resign.

Public employees, whether elected or appointed, serve others within boundaries established by law and policy. We do not surrender our moral judgment when we become public employees, but we do give up the right to exercise that judgment by using our position to impose our own beliefs on others. Many people know that my faith proscribes the use of alcohol, coffee, and tea. I observe that tenet of my faith in my personal life, recognizing that I have no right to tell others they should do likewise. If my conscience dictated that I work in a place where no coffee is allowed, my remedy is to go find that place.

I strongly believe in accommodating religious beliefs whenever possible, but I also believe religious accommodation for one should not come at the expense of another. My beliefs about coffee, marriage, marijuana, or alcohol are essentially irrelevant in the conduct of my job. If my conscience can’t tolerate the decisions made by the public through the electoral process, my conscience and I need to work someplace else. Allowing individuals to decide public policy based on their personal convictions is dictatorship, not democracy.

All of us can think of times when we disagreed with a law or policy. I have campaigned vigorously to change various examples of both at different times in my life. We are completely free to advocate for or against candidates, legislation, or policies as long as we do not use public resources to make our case. We can attack issues that offend our conscience or our judgment without compromising our responsibilities as a public employee.

Several years ago, an Australian and an English friend of mine took advantage of a trip to Baghdad to purchase alcohol for their own consumption and for some Polish friends with similar tastes. I recall sitting in an SUV loaded with cases of liquor, hoping we would not be stopped at one of the many roadblocks on the road to the holy city of Kerbala, where we lived. There wasn’t really any secular law in Iraq at the time, but my friends were clearly violating local religious standards. The penalty for that transgression could be death. Our Iraqi employees, who were generally among the most helpful and gracious people anywhere, told us they could not unload the liquor from the vehicle because it would violate tenets of their faith. I took some perverse pleasure in watching my friends lug their cases upstairs while my fellow teetotalers and I watched. More than once, my Iraqi friends observed that I could be a good Muslim because I did not drink.

The experience of living and working in a place where religious law is supreme makes me appreciate the value of our secular government. While it’s true I can’t stop others from doing things like drinking coffee or alcohol (not that I want to), it’s equally true that I can’t be forced to embrace the beliefs of others acting as individuals.