Marijuana legalization and the widespread use of medical cannabis have made the how and when of enforcing workplace drug policies vexed questions. Medical and non-medical consumers both have faced workplace sanctions and terminations for legal, off-the-clock cannabis use. But what happened to Vietnam veteran and former Dean of the Air Force Special Operations School (AFSOS) Henry Cobbs is perhaps the most striking recent instance of the conflict between the medical application of cannabis and the rule of law.
A 22-year tour of duty with the Air Force, a PhD in educational technology, and a distinguished career as an academic dean at AFSOS: Henry Cobbs has an impressive CV. “My life has been sort of a storybook, to tell you the truth,” Cobbs told reporters with the Herald Tribune.
But now, Cobbs is trying to safeguard that legacy after losing his job for his use—his medical use—of a “Schedule I controlled substance.” But Cobbs wasn’t caught consuming THC. He wasn’t smoking weed. Instead, the substance that cost him his job with AFSOS was the non-psychoactive cannabinoid CBD, or cannabidiol.
In 2016, Cobbs learned that he had intraductal carcinoma of the prostate, a rare form of cancer. He opted to throw everything he could at it, from chemotherapy to cannabis. Cobbs’ physician offered an alternative to radiation, a daily regimen involving citrus, non-psychoactive mushrooms and CBD.
In 2018, Cobbs’ cancer finally went into remission as he continued on his regimen of conventional and alternative treatments. Then he found out that a couple of his AFSOS co-workers were battling cancer and Cobbs was excited to share his CBD success story with them. But according to Cobbs’ termination letter, other employees overheard Cobbs talking about medical cannabis and demonstrating how his CBD vape worked. To keep up with his treatments, Cobbs vaped medical CBD oil at work. As a result, AFSOS Commander Lt. Col. Michael Lowe sent a letter informing Cobbs he would soon be out of a job.
With his termination from AFSOS scheduled for the afternoon of August 15, Cobbs submitted his retirement that morning. But the 77-year-old is still appealing his termination. Cobbs’ case ultimately rests on a dispute over the language of a Reagan-era Executive Order excepting the use “of controlled substances pursuant to a valid prescription or other uses authorized by law” from the definition of ‘illegal drugs.’ Under the federal government’s current classification of marijuana, the plant and all of its derivatives, including CBD, are Schedule 1 substances deemed to have no medical or therapeutic value.
But Cobbs insists that his doctor gave him a prescription for CBD oil, which would exempt it under the Reagan EO. Cobbs’ Alabama physician, Dr. Ryan McWhorter, confirms his office prescribed the CBD oil and that Cobbs purchased it from the office directly. It’s likely, however, that Dr. McWhorter only “recommended” CBD oil, since prescribing cannabis in any form is illegal under federal law. And even in states with legal medical cannabis, licensed physicians cannot also fill the recommendations they provide.
Despite the relative weakness of his case, Cobbs has vowed to take his battle all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary. For Cobbs, the issue is one of principle, not employment. “I was only concerned with getting rid of my cancer, and the CBD worked. So to hell with the law.” The DEA’s recent decision to reschedule the CBD epilepsy Epidiolex could work in Cobbs’ favor.
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