'I feel betrayed by my company': TTC subway operator barred while using medicinal cannabis

A TTC employee says she's back on opioids because her employer told her she can't use medical marijuana and remain as a subway operator, even though her doctor thinks cannabis is the best treatment for her chronic pain.

TTC says it must keep the public safe and won't take chances with any form of cannabis

'I'm not only fighting for me,' says TTC employee Ellaine Farrell from her Toronto home in North York, speaking about her medical marijuana use. (Chris Glover/CBC)

A Toronto Transit Commission employee says she's back on opioids because her employer told her she can't use medical marijuana and remain as a subway operator, even though her doctor thinks cannabis is the best treatment for her chronic pain. 

Ellaine Farrell, 59, has suffered from two herniated discs in her lower back and fibromyalgia, a condition that causes widespread pain. She said the TTC offered her other non-safety-sensitive positions if she wanted to stay on medicinal cannabis, but they would come with a big pay cut.

"I feel betrayed by my company, especially when there's people making decisions on my life and they have never ever seen me face to face," Farrell, a 26-year TTC employee, told CBC Toronto. 

"Even their doctor, who's supposed to be doing all their decisions, has never seen me face to face and they're going against my doctors? They're going against a specialist? Really, honestly, it's so wrong.

Farrell said she's now taking opioids, including percocet and oxycodone, but her doctor said they are less effective. Farrell also said they cause her to be groggy, forgetful and feel like a "zombie."

Opioids are very, very addictive, and I want to get off the opioids because it's ruining my life.- Ellaine Farrell, TTC employee

To continue operating a subway train, she must not take the opioid medications within eight hours of starting her shift, she said she was told by the TTC. 

"Opioids are very, very addictive, and I want to get off the opioids because it's ruining my life," said Farrell.

"There's times I'm in such a rage or such agony, I'm just like, 'Don't touch me, leave me alone' and [the TTC doesn't] seem to understand that. It's just the education. Get educated!"

'Safe public transit system' a priority, TTC says

The TTC said an independent medical expert has advised the transit agency not to allow any employee in a safety-sensitive position, like Farrell, to use any form of cannabis because they could get intoxicated.

Whether it's for medical needs or for recreational, we have an obligation to this city to have a safe public transit system.- Brad Ross, TTC spokesperson

"Whether it's for medical needs or for recreational, we have an obligation to this city to have a safe public transit system," said Brad Ross, the TTC's head of corporate communications. 

"This isn't about cannabis. This is about any medication that could potentially impair, and that's not a chance we're prepared to take."

Farrell said she suffered two herniated discs about 12 years ago when she was a TTC fare collector, and then began taking opioids.

However, she said, they barely made a dent in her chronic pain.

In April 2017, she first started seeing Dr. Michael Verbora, who prescribed her CBD oil, a derivative of cannabis, for pain and inflammation. She informed the TTC and at first she was allowed to take it, but was told not to use it close to her shift.

"After three days [on the oil] I could not believe the difference, I was just like, 'Wow, this is a miracle,'" said Farrell.

"I had not felt this good in 15 years ... The inflammation in my joints was gone. I could walk better, move better. I slept better. So I went from taking so many medications to just taking one."

TTC's move discriminatory, invasive, doctor says

Farrell's doctor said the CBD oil she was taking would not have made her intoxicated because it has negligible amounts of THC, the psychoactive chemical in cannabis.

"This felt extremely discriminating, and it felt like an invasion of my patient's health and their personal rights," said Verbora, the medical director of Aleafia Medical Cannabis Clinic.

Dr. Michael Verbora, medical director of Aleafia Medical Cannabis Clinic, worries patients like Farrell are being blocked from cannabis because of stigma. (Garry Asselstine/CBC)

By July 2017, Farrell said, the TTC told her she could no longer take medicinal cannabis, given her safety-sensitive position. They struck a brief compromise: She was allowed to take the medication on weekends and holidays.

By September, the TTC sent Farrell what she calls a "threatening" letter, stating she could no longer take cannabis at all and the employer required a letter from her doctor saying he would not prescribe it to her.

"Interfering with her and giving her an ultimatum that she can go back on opioids so she can drive or face financial consequences seems disingenuous," said Verbora.

"The reality is that I'm not overly convinced that driving a TTC bus on opioids is safe either."

Employers 'not ready' for legal cannabis, lawyer says

Employment and labour lawyer Soma Ray-Ellis said it's "unusual" for a company to take a position on an employee's medication.

"What evidence and information is an employer relying on to say we will allow X and we won't allow Y when the medical information being provided is that the second option is better for the employee and is making that employee less impaired?" she said.

After cannabis becomes legal in Canada next month, issues of workplace accommodations for its use will likely increase, and Ray-Ellis said few companies have developed cannabis policies, instead relying on "blanket" pre-existing drug policies.

"What we're seeing is really the infancy of implementing, monitoring and managing the introduction of cannabis into the workplace," said Ray-Ellis. "Most employers are not ready and are not prepared, and they may be being reactive to that introduction."

'I'm not only fighting for me'

Farrell's union has taken up her case and may take it to binding arbitration. 

"The union has observed a pattern of discriminatory treatment by the TTC towards employees who require medical cannabis products," said Frank Grimaldi, president of Local 113 of the Amalgamated Transit Union.

"The TTC should follow the advice of employees' doctors who know best how any given prescription affects a patient."

Farrell, meanwhile, said she will continue to push for change.

"I'm going to fight this, because I'm not only fighting for me," she said.

"There's a heck of a lot more employees in this boat and unfortunately they are too afraid to speak out."