Utah DCFS Caseworker Fired for Supporting Marijuana Reform

Editor’s note: The following is a lightly edited interview with Michael Martinez, a former caseworker with the Utah Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) who was recently terminated for his personal beliefs and personal advocacy for marijuana policy reform.

The comments in this interview do not necessarily reflect the views of Libertas Institute.

Libertas Institute: Tell us a little bit about yourself and your job with DCFS.

Michael Martinez: I recently graduated with a bachelors degree in social work from the University of Utah, and had previously interned with DCFS as part of my academic requirements to graduate. Last September I was hired on full time with DCFS and worked as a caseworker, helping client families work through issues when their children were at risk or when they were taken from their homes.

I really enjoyed my job and particularly enjoyed helping my clients and seeing them become successful and getting their children back. I was hired under a contract program where I committed 18 months to the state in return for tuition assistance I had received during the last two years of my education. I was about one-third of my way through the 18 months when they terminated me for “inappropriate use of social media” and “inappropriate conversations with staff and clients” based on my views about marijuana policy.

I was a great employee and had great reviews from my supervisors throughout my time at DCFS.

I was completely floored when they terminated me. I was a great employee and had great reviews from my supervisors throughout my time at DCFS. They even had a meeting about three weeks before I was fired, where one of my supervisors told me I was the topic of discussion in their meeting. When I asked “what about?” A supervisor said that the supervisor of the CPS department, where I had transferred to, was telling the rest of the supervisors and the building director how great a job I was doing. I enjoyed my job and felt like I was making a difference in people’s lives. I was sad to leave.

LI: What led to you being fired?

MM: About a week before I was fired, I was holding a Child and Family Team Meeting (CFTM) on behalf of an adult client (a citizen who DCFS is involved with), where I was handing off the case to a long-term “permanency” social worker, and in that conversation marijuana came up because my client had been using marijuana as a way to get off of meth. The client was ordered into treatment, and before the client could get into that treatment, the client needed to test negative for all drugs. So the client decided to use marijuana to help get off of meth, and then planned on curtailing the use of marijuana until their drug tests came out clean.

This client personally felt that using marijuana would help them reduce their meth use, and it was working. Well, the other caseworker at the CFTM, when she heard what the client was doing to get off of meth, told the adult client and her parents that marijuana was a gateway drug. I didn’t say anything at that time in the meeting and tried to change the subject. However, I felt pretty disturbed by that comment and felt badly for the client because based on all of the research I did for four years while in college, I disagreed strongly with that caseworker’s opinion.

A day later when I met with the client’s parents, I expressed to them my personal view that I did not believe marijuana was a gateway drug, and didn’t want them to be misinformed by the comments of the other caseworker the day before. They told me that they agreed with my view about marijuana not being a gateway drug.

The other caseworker who expressed that they felt marijuana was a gateway drug was free to make their opinion known—but I wasn’t.

I feel strongly that marijuana is not a gateway. It is disheartening because the other caseworker who expressed that they felt marijuana was a gateway drug was free to make their opinion known—but I wasn’t. I don’t know if this is related to a cultural bias, but it certainly isn’t based on facts.

Well, later on Facebook I made a personal post to my friends and fellow drug reform advocates sharing this basic story. I didn’t use any names or confidential information about the client or caseworker in the post. I simply said that a co-worker told my client’s parents that marijuana was a gateway drug and that the next day I had expressed my view that I disagreed and that they agreed with my view.

Here is the actual word for word language that I used in that Facebook post: “I was so bugged all last night after a co-worker told an adult client of mine and the parents, that marijuana was a gateway drug. So bothered that when I paid the parents a visit today, I told them where I stood and they agreed 100%, and they told me that they could see how pained I was the previous day, when I didn’t correct the co-worker. We laughed. Good honest connection made! Don’t fear the leaf.”

One of my Facebook friends from the office must have brought this to their attention and might have said something like I was “talking about work” on the web. But, the post I made didn’t identify anything about DCFS or anybody in particular. There is no way anybody could have guessed anything about who the post was about. It was simply observations I was making about how people commonly have misconceptions about marijuana.

LI: Did they give you a chance to explain yourself, or just fire you based on the accusation of a co-worker?

MM: A week after making that post, the director of our office in West Valley where I work, Ray Harris, called me into a meeting with with him and my supervisor. As I walked in I immediately noticed that my supervisor appeared really upset and sad. I asked what was going on and Ray said “I hear you made a post about something you said to your clients, and something about “don’t fear the leaf?” I responded “yes, I’m an advocate for the legalization of marijuana.” (I have a Facebook group called “Don’t Fear the Leaf.”) He then asked me if I posted something online about a co-worker? And I replied “no, not about a co-worker, I just posted about a situation I encountered at work.”

To me it seemed clearly a reaction to my un-remorseful belief and advocacy for marijuana legalization. I was shocked.

Ray seemed surprised about the title of the page and he repeated the name of it: “Don’t fear the leaf?” I said, “Yes, that is what is it called” and he stopped talking at that point and said “well, we can’t have that here… we are going to have to terminate you.” I was going to explain further but Ray just said I was terminated. To me it seemed clearly a reaction to my un-remorseful belief and advocacy for marijuana legalization. I was shocked. They didn’t even give me an opportunity to explain. I don’t think he ever even saw the post I made—a post which I still have online. The post clearly does not give any confidential information at all. It is a generic post.

It seemed to me that he was expecting me to not admit to being a personal advocate for legalizing marijuana. However, I explained that everyone knew I was an advocate for marijuana reform. I told him that it was common knowledge. By the look on his face I could tell that really bothered him. I suppose he comes from that point of view where marijuana is bad and is a gateway drug.

LI: Did he ever read anything from the employee manual or state what the policies were and explain what policies you violated?

I was terminated for my personal advocacy for drug reform—simple as that.

MM: No, nothing like that. I was terminated for my personal advocacy for drug reform—simple as that. I wasn’t even really given a chance to explain the post in question. It is because I wouldn’t apologize for my advocacy. I am not sure what the director wanted me to say. My supervisor was in tears and sad for me. I told my supervisor that I would be alright and not to worry about me.

LI: Did you ever receive employee training on social media policies? Do they have any employee policies like that?

MM: No, nothing I have seen. I haven’t been told anything like that or trained on anything like that. But I know enough about proper confidentiality not to violate anyone’s confidentiality.

LI: What about policies regarding confidentiality?

MM: Well, yes there are professional ethics related to confidentiality that all social workers learn about and we sign papers when we open new cases related to confidentiality. But, that was never brought up here and there was never a hint about any of that. If that had been brought up at all, I would have showed him the post online so he could see none of the confidentiality standards had been violated.

LI: When you say you are an “advocate” for marijuana policy reform, what do you mean? What do you do?

After my wife passed away in 2009 after becoming addicted to prescribed pain killers… I became an advocate for legalizing [marijuana].

MM: Well, after my wife passed away in 2009 after becoming addicted to prescribed pain killers, anti-anxiety meds, sleeping pills, and ADHD pills—over seven medications that led her to her death—I researched marijuana in all its forms and discovered its medicinal worth, and became an advocate for legalizing it. I personally believe strongly that marijuana should be de-criminalized. I advocate heavily on Facebook to my friends, other fellow advocates, acquaintances, and in my personal circles for drug policy reform. I make frequent Facebook posts that point out problems with our society’s approach to marijuana. I post numerous critiques of failed drug policies.

For example, I point out how there is no such thing as marijuana “overdoses,” or deaths related to marijuana, and how marijuana is not associated with violence, domestic violence, and date-rape like alcohol is. I make posts like that all the time. That is the nature of my online advocacy for marijuana legalization. I even have a leaf sticker on the back of my car. Everybody knows this about me. When I was a student in college and studied social work I did every research project on a topic related to marijuana if possible. I have researched it a ton.

LI: How does drug policy tie into the work at DCFS? Does that create a conflict?

MM: No, I don’t think it creates a conflict at all. I don’t tell people at work they can or should use drugs. I just think we need to reevaluate our approach to marijuana in this country. At DCFS we actually deal with drug users caught up in the law all the time. First of all, we don’t take kids away from parents just for using marijuana. Instead we set up a safety plan and explain to parents that they cannot use drugs around the kids and if they happen to use drugs they need to make sure their kids are not home. They also have to make sure that if they decide to use drugs that the drugs are locked so that the kids cannot get to them. So in a way, or actually, we advocate for the safe use of marijuana. We don’t try to preach to parents that they are doing something wrong by using, we just tell them they need to use it safely when it comes to their children.

When we receive calls or complaints about parental drug use it is usually because the drugs are in a drawer that might be accessible to children. In that type of case I might get sent out as a CPS worker to clear the threat of children being able to gain access to marijuana or ensure that drugs are not being used around children.

We talk about drugs almost every single day in our office because the people we work with and help are often struggling with drug addiction and drug use.

Given that context, we talk about drugs almost every single day in our office because the people we work with and help are often struggling with drug addiction and drug use. Nearly every one of my clients was using either heroin or meth. So it blew me away that one of the allegations against me was having an “inappropriate conversation” about drug policy. There was no inappropriate conversation—that never happened. The DWS adjudicator looked into my termination, and made a finding that I was not at fault for my termination.

LI: What happened with the adjudication? Did DCFS terminate you for cause?

MM: No, I was terminated without good cause. The adjudicator said that DCFS claimed to have given me a warning in December of last year—this was a flat out lie by DCFS, and it never happened. If anyone had ever said anything to me about my advocacy for marijuana legalization, I would have talked with them about it and came up with a solution that worked for both of us. It never happened. I was never given a chance to explain myself. I have never been written up or given warnings for anything at all.

I am being silenced for my personal beliefs.

In fact, the director, Ray Harris, was actually sitting in on my five-month job review, and he was witness to the comments being made by both my trainer, my supervisor, and my lead worker, about how good of a job I was doing. I liked working for DCFS and wanted to do well and be successful there. I would have toned my advocacy down a bit if I had been asked. None of this had anything to do with my work performance.

LI: Has this impacted your free speech rights?

MM: Yes, definitely. I am being silenced for my personal beliefs. I feel like this is almost a bully tactic to keep people like me silent.

LI: If you were advocating for same-sex marriage rights do you think you would have been treated differently?

MM: As a matter of fact, I was in Judge Shelby’s courtroom the moment he made the ruling legalizing same-sex marriage in Utah as part of my social work studies. I posted about it a lot on Facebook too. I can only imagine what the push back would have been had I already been an employee of DCFS.

LI: What would you tell state legislators if you had the chance?

MM: Well, two weeks after I was terminated from DCFS, I read an article citing Governor Herbert of Utah being open to legalizing medicinal marijuana. I sarcastically thought to myself: “Wait!? A state employee just gave his personal opinion while at work—he should be fired!”

I would tell the legislature that if they would regulate, educate, tax the sale of, and decriminalize marijuana in Utah, they could save the state millions of dollars in law enforcement, court costs, and incarceration costs related to marijuana. I admit to trying marijuana as a coping mechanism, for sleep, and for relaxation during the year I grieved for my wife. I think this shows how it has not affected me negatively to this date—I have had good jobs and gone back to school to finish my degree. I don’t use marijuana now, but if I ever needed it in lieu of dangerous pain or sleep medications, I would use marijuana instead.

Prohibition laws turn over 100 million Americans into criminals. I would quote for them Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s comment he made from the Birmingham jail where he said “One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” Our marijuana policies in this country are unjust.