From the Magazine

It’s Not Easy Being Green: The Future of Medical Cannabis & Education

Just imagine a pain so intense that it disorients you. Lightning bolts zap away your cognition and ruin your short term memory. A river of what feels like molten lava flows down your spine and into your legs. It’s like you’re burning from the inside. Your joints are failing your vision blurs, and you literally cannot stand. It beats you down like waves crashing into a rocky shore; you can’t come up for air, you can’t think, it’s all turning to darkness. It’s a pain so intense that, when confronted with it each and every day, you’d consider the gravest of alternatives. 

Now imagine that one miracle pill would wash it all away. You’d be free from the demon that has haunted you, ruined relationships, and rendered you fully unable to excel at your craft. But, what if it wasn’t a pill as we’ve come to know it? Not built in a lab, not designed by a chemist, but grown from the earth. Natural, organic, pure. Would you ruin a career to stop it? Or would you do everything you could to ensure it was accessible to anyone who needed it, especially those suffering the most? 

Cannabis. Marijuana. Weed. Pot. Whatever you’ve been calling it, medical cannabis has a long and complicated history in the United States. California first legalized medical cannabis for its residents in 1996, and states have been rushing to legalize it in California’s footsteps ever since. Well more than half at this point. And, almost two decades later, Florida finally joined them. As far as Florida resident and teacher Allison Enright is concerned, it’s better late than never. 

To Allison, medical cannabis is a miracle drug. After years of pain, opioid use, and even being bound to a wheelchair for long stints, Enright asked her doctor whether medical cannabis may be able to help her. What she didn’t know at the time was that she would have to choose between the freedom and joy of an improved quality of life and the career she lives for. Allison’s story leaves us with more questions than answers. Chief among them: why is a medication that is legal, prescribed, and readily available in her state still off limits … especially for teachers. 

Allison’s Health Saga

Allison Enright has been a teacher for over 35 years, beloved by her students and her colleagues. She built a career from her passion, and specializes in helping students with reading disabilities. But, in 2002, after the birth of her third son, she began to notice changes. 

Allison was dealing with several conditions that caused severe pain and weakness, limiting her mobility and putting her in leg braces, crutches, and finally a motorized wheelchair. She was put on opioids during this process to try and manage the pain, and was, at one point, taking 67 pain pills a day. Eventually, after extensive physical therapy and a lot of hard work, she was able to fight through the sickness and pain and resume her life’s passion in the classroom. 

She and her family uprooted to move down south where the warmer climate would help with joint inflammation and a swimming pool allowed for daily water therapy. Fast forward to 2016, and she was hired at Space Coast Junior/Senior High School in Brevard County, Florida. But, during her first year, her illness struck again and when her joints failed her, Allison toppled over at work and injured herself. The fall would land her back in physical therapy, but the ultimate price for the spill was much higher. 

When she submitted to a drug test for her Workers’ Compensation claim, they asked about her opioid use. She was able to provide the prescription for the several opioids she was taking, and without further question was given a pass for the narcotics. And why shouldn’t she be? While opioids claim the lives of thousands each day, these were prescribed legally and were helping Allison get through the pain. She had no further issues. 

During her recovery she consulted with one of her doctors, fearing the setback from the fall would again confine her to a wheelchair. That consult proved to be a huge turning point in Allison’s health saga. The doctor suggested that medical cannabis may be able to help her instead. 

Concurrent studies in the Journal of Pain and Clinical and Experimental Rheumatology found that, when used to treat fibromyalgia, MCT (medical cannabis treatment) served to fully replace opioids in as many as 70 percent of cases. The Journal of Clinical Medicine recently reviewed the MCT option, pronouncing it both safe and effective for the treatment of this and other pain-related conditions. 

Reborn in the Classroom

In 2018, after some hesitation and healthy cynicism, Allison was convinced to try a new intervention. She applied for medical cannabis, received a recommendation, and began a new form of treatment. The cannabis soon replaced every single one of her pills, including (importantly) the opioids that had put her in a years-long fog, and left her dangerously close to addiction. Coming off those opioids would prove difficult, but she knew it was the healthier choice. For many people like Enright, cannabis can be life-changing in comparison to pharmaceuticals like opioids, which can be useful for acute pain, but tragic in the long run. 

She would have to choose between the joy of an improved quality of life and the career she lives for. 

“Opioids suppress the pain somewhat, but they suppress your personality, your energy, your enthusiasm,” offered Enright. “I never realized the difference until I got off of them.” 

In 2017, over 70,000 Americans died from a drug overdose, and 68% of those deaths involved a prescription or illicit opioid. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, four out of five people who are addicted to heroin report that their addiction began with a prescription. 

Enright had a long road coming off of opioids. Her doctor told her that it was impossible for most people. But now that she made the switch, she was not going back. And, once she adjusted to her new treatment and got through the withdrawals, Allison was reborn. 

Miracle Drug

Cannabis has been around for most of recorded human history. The first known instance of cannabis being used as medicine dates back to approximately 2800 BC in China and it was actually part of the United States Pharmacopoeia until 1942. 

Today, cannabis has been repopularized for its medicinal qualities. As the stigma against it has fallen — over 85 percent of Americans support the use of medical marijuana — many Americans have sought and received better medical care and improved their quality of life. As of last year, nearly 5.6 million Americans had received medicinal cannabis. That’s nearly 3 percent of all residents where the drug is medicinally legal. 

Different cannabinoids (the compounds that connect to receptors in the body and give therapeutic effects) have different benefits. There are many other cannabinoids — at least 113 according to the American Chemical Society — but THC and CBD are the two most common and studied so far. THC (the cannabinoid often associated with ‘getting high’) touts benefits like pain relief, reduced inflammation, muscle relaxing, and reducing nausea and vomiting. CBD has many beneficial effects, including acting as an anti-depressant, an anti-anxiety agent, and assisting with sleep. 

Prescribed cannabis can look like any other medicine, coming in liquid, gummy, and pill (as in Allison’s case) forms. 

As for Allison, she doesn’t feel any psychotropic effects, just pain relief. She takes two capsules a day, one in the morning and one at night. Since using the drug, she’s had more energy, her bright and cheery personality came back, and she had an enthusiasm for life again, for the classroom again. 

Rule Follower

Just when she thought the rollercoaster of her life was over, in January of 2021 everything in Allison’s life changed … again. 

January 15th was a day like any other for Allison. She arrived early to school to handle COVID protocols — wiping down desks and dividers. She chatted with her colleagues, enjoyed her morning coffee, and got the room setup for the day. With her medical challenges, Allison worried about COVID perhaps a bit more than her peers, but didn’t want it to impact the learning environment. 

Today, cannabis has been repopularized for its medical qualities as the stigma against it has fallen — over 85% of Americans support the use of medical marijuana.

Late that afternoon Allison had a run-in with a student who wasn’t following COVID protocols. The troubled student was quick to violence and Allison had unknowingly triggered an episode. Before she could react, she was shoved forcefully, falling backwards and tumbling down the stairs. She was shook-up, confused, and again injured. She wanted to shrug it off, but the injury was severe enough that she was advised to seek medical attention, which triggered a Workers’ Compensation claim. 

The paperwork was standard bureaucracy: medical history (a decidedly lengthy section for Allison), current symptoms, description of the event, and, finally, current prescriptions. 

“Cannabis,” she wrote. Just as she had for her opioids during the previous incident years ago, she disclosed her significantly shorter list of prescriptions in full. 

Allison went back to work, resumed life as a healthy and functioning citizen, and worked to bring her students back up to speed. A week later she was abruptly removed from campus and the recommendation was made that the superintendent terminate her effective immediately. 

“I am a rule follower,” Enright explained, still emotional as she recalled the day. “Knock on wood, I’ve never even had a parking ticket.” She was confused and shocked; she felt like she didn’t know which way was up. And, when the shock started to clear, her spirit was broken. An institution — public education — to which she had given every ounce of her energy and passion, had turned its back on her without cause. 

Confusing Rules

Cannabis has something of a confusing history. It’s littered with falsehoods, pseudoscience, and moral judgments on all sides. The word marijuana, as many people refer to it now, was introduced in the 1930s by the newly appointed Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry Anslinger. For reasons we won’t dive into here, he was attempting to attach marijuana’s use to Latinos and African American jazz musicians and prove that its use made people insane. 

After passing the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937, the nationwide attitude began to fall in line with Anslinger’s, and Reefer Madness had taken hold. In 1970 the final nail was put in the coffin when the Controlled Substances Act classified cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug alongside heroin, LSD, and ecstasy. Schedule 1 drugs are classified that way because they have a high potential for abuse, have no currently accepted medical use in the United States, and there is a lack of acceptable safety for use of the drug. Since then, many attempts have been made to change the laws but to no avail. 

The Brevard County schools had put in place a Drug-Free Workplace Policy that seemed like a no-brainer when signing the contract. But, the ambiguity of that policy, and the overzealousness of the district’s legal team, would turn that harmless clause into justification for Allison’s termination. 

The policy that teachers sign off on every year states, “I will not do illegal drugs and I will not abuse legal drugs” and according to the state of Florida and 35 other states in the US, medical cannabis is not an illegal drug. So, what then was she doing so wrong? Vanessa Skipper, Vice President of the Brevard Federation of Teachers, tried her best to get the school board to see these facts before they met to decide Enright’s fate as a teacher in Brevard County and potentially anywhere else. 

The Brevard County School Board met on March 23, 2021 — two whole months after Enright had been removed from campus — to determine whether or not to accept the superintendent’s recommendation for Enright’s termination. 

At the time, Allison wasn’t just worried about her own fate; she was worried about her students. “It’s been a whirlwind — every morning, sitting at home, trying to find a job rather than going to my job, knowing that my students didn’t have a substitute … those kids had nobody solid to be with them … my students need that consistency and they struggle [without it].” 

Multiple teachers and staff members spoke at the meeting on Enright’s behalf, including Anthony Kaluci, the President of the Brevard Federation of Teachers. 

“It is my belief that none of you want to terminate Ms. Enright, you believe that you have to terminate her,” argued Kaluci. “If you believe you cannot vote against the termination, at least put a pause on [it]… I request that you take some additional time to thoroughly explore all possibilities. Do not rush this decision for an excellent teacher.” 

Vanessa Skipper, local AFT vice president, also pointed out that the policy they were referencing hadn’t been updated in almost 2 decades, and that state laws had changed to allow medical cannabis since then. The student policy, however, had been updated — in 2019. Skipper asked the board to consider other course of action, begging the question “When other remedies are available, is termination the extreme remedy the district should choose?” 

Two board members agreed that at the very least, the policy wasn’t clear enough to terminate Enright. They had options other than termination, including some form of rehabilitation and suspension with or without pay. At one point, board member Matt Susin stated that “We, as a district, have failed, in my mind, to update our policies to get to a point where we can deal with this.” 

Dan Bennet, a current teacher and prior board member, urged the former board member to do what he thought was right under the circumstances: update the policy and let Allison go back to the classroom. He admonished the bureaucracy, arguing that the board “would lawyer up on the dictionary before fixing a typo.” 

Misty Belford, the chairwoman of the board, said that while the Department of Education issued guidance that they must update their student policy, no such guidance was issued regarding teachers and the Drug-Free Workplace Policy. Belford felt that until the issue was fixed at a federal level, their hands were tied. 

And, in the end, Bennet and a small army of character witnesses would fall to Belford and two others. The vote was 3-2. They would follow the superintendent’s recommendation on termination. Allison would be fired permanently. 

Her students would remain without a highly-qualified teacher. And, the board would hide behind legalese — most citing the need to stay true to the letter of the policies as written. 

Why it Happened

Today, cannabis remains under the classification of a Schedule 1 drug, and it is still federally illegal. 

Like the decades-old legalese in their teacher contracts, the FDA’s failure to update old statutes has created a domino effect of red tape and bureaucracy. Sadly, folks like Allison are senseless victims of a paperwork firestorm. 

Because of its classification, cannabis falls under the jurisdiction of the Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988. This act requires that federal contractors and federal grantees (of which schools are a part) provide drug-free workplaces as a precondition of receiving a contract or grant from a federal agency. So, while medical cannabis is legal at the state level, since many schools receive federal funding they must adhere to the rules of the federal government and therefore to this policy. The Americans with Disabilities Act, which normally protects employees in situations similar to these, also does not address medical cannabis since it is not federally legal. 

“It is my belief that none of you want to terminate Ms. Enright, you believe that you have to terminate her… but do not rush this decision for an excellent teacher.” 

Allison

Despite the issues raised last year, the school board still has not updated their policy for the ‘21-’22 school year. Vanessa Skipper says that many teachers brought this up as something that needs to be addressed at the bargaining table after Enright’s termination, but for the time being the policy still does not clearly define medical cannabis as an illegal drug. 

Aftermath

Enright felt like a criminal — 35 years in the teaching profession and she hadn’t had so much as a write-up or conference with the administration. For the entirety of her tenure in Florida she was given the rating of “highly effective teacher.” She, by all accounts, was one of the good ones. 

“I love teaching — it’s not what I do,” she’d tell me. “It’s who I am.” 

“It’s who I am.” 

The policy states Brevard teachers will not use illegal drugs and they will not abuse legal ones. She hadn’t. How could two capsules, as recommended by a medical doctor, be abuse? Why should she feel so ashamed? Why should the silver bullet in her struggle with health become a black mark on her permanent record? 

“Bottom line — this isn’t Woodstock — it’s a medication that’s legal in the state,” says Enright. But in the end, the school board disagreed. 

After her termination, Enright did whatever she had to do to keep her house and pay her bills. She taught English through VIP Kid, drove for DoorDash, put out tutoring flyers, and even started applying for waitressing jobs. 

“I love teaching, and when I thought I couldn’t teach again — and I did think that for a while — my heart was broken.” 

The school board determined that she could apply to be a teacher again in the district next year — as long as a drug test came back negative for cannabis. 

But at the time of the board meeting that sealed her fate, she wasn’t given an option to give up cannabis and keep her job. She wasn’t offered that pathway. Had she been offered the opportunity to give up her renewed health, her nights of sleep, her zest for life … in exchange to do her life’s greatest passion, she would have. 

After all, that’s who she is. 

But that was then. She won’t be bullied into a decision that no person should ever face. Now she says, “I can’t imagine going back — choosing to take something [opioids] that we have a national crisis over, people overdose accidentally … and that would put me back to needing assisted devices? At this point, no.” 

Allison’s is a story of overregulation. No one wanted her fired. No one wanted to see her go. She was the most qualified for her job; the best for the task. And, worst of all, she hadn’t done anything illegal with her state … by her reading, she hadn’t even done anything against policy. But a board of non-educators felt compelled — by lawyers and HR specialists — to eliminate a high-performing teacher, stealing an education from hundreds of students, in the name of playing by the letter of the law … playing it safe. But safe for who? Or, as Allison would be quick to correct, safe for “whom?” 

Allison Enright isn’t a delivery driver. She isn’t a tutor. She isn’t a waitress. Allison is a teacher. But faceless bureaucrats have taken her life’s passion. They’ve asked her to pick between health and work. Allison Enright is a teacher. 

Lizz is a content writer from Northwest Indiana.  In her free time she loves to read, hike, camp, and try to keep her plants alive.  In the summer you can find her at Lake Michigan.