TAMPA ― Tavoris Allen said he never knew he was breaking the law when he brought a cooker full of coconut and cannabis to work with him last December at a Plant City fire station.
Allen had an active medical-marijuana registry card and a written prescription for the drug from his doctor, records show.
Even so, deputies arrested Allen in the middle of his shift at Hillsborough County Fire Rescue’s Station 26, bringing to an end his 16-year career as a paramedic lieutenant. Hillsborough County officials and members of its now-shuttered Civil Service Board arbitration agency agreed that Allen violated county drug-free workplace policies.
A year later, Allen, 37, is still trying to win his job back.
Allen filed a lawsuit on his own behalf Monday in Hillsborough Circuit Court, saying that neither the county nor the Civil Service Board gave him the chance to confront his accusers or challenge their evidence against him. A judge gave him until Nov. 20 to file additional information.
According to the suit, Allen was cooking dinner for his crew when deputies arrived at the station, a small public-safety house at 5302 Thonotosassa Road next to Keel and Curley Winery in Plant City. Three fire chiefs also showed up, summoned by firefighters who had discovered the Magical Butter Extractor that Allen plugged into a corner of the station’s workout room.
“I was the only member of the station who wasn’t aware of what was going on,” Allen wrote in his petition. “The first thing I saw was my three chiefs standing in the door with the cops … I was under duress during this interview, was caught off guard and scared.”
Deputies found the mechanical extractor, a Thermos-like device marketed as an herb infuser, powered on and full of yellow cannabis oil. The oil tested positive for THC, the compound in marijuana that produces euphoria, and two pieces of a marijuana plant were basting in it.
Allen admitted that the device and its contents were his and declined the right to an attorney, his arrest report says. Deputies confirmed he was on the marijuana registry, according to the report, but said this did not allow him to make the product himself or possess marijuana in plant form. In July, Allen pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge and was sentenced to a year probation, court records show.
His employment, though, is a different matter, he argues, saying, in the lawsuit, there “has never been a policy regarding the use of medical marijuana” among county employees.
“I was never impaired at work, never harmed or endangered anyone the day of this incident,” Allen said. “I never knowingly meant to to break any policy or laws.”
Hillsborough County officials said they didn’t dismiss Allen over his arrest but because he admitted to possessing marijuana at work. Medicinal or not, Hillsborough County policy considers all forms of marijuana to be prohibited substances in the workplace. State law has eased, tolerating the trace amounts of THC found even in legal compounds, but the policy has not.
Allen’s arrest came after county firefighters and paramedics approved a three-year contract that requires employees to undergo random drug testing — a first for Hillsborough County. County commissioners called for the change after a Tampa Bay Times investigation found dozens of drug and alcohol-related incidents among fire-rescue employees who knew urine was tested only in January or July.
Now, the union contract explicitly bans the use of illegal drugs outside work hours and requires random drug testing — five employees, every other week — for all 1,200 employees. Employees who fail a test are required to enter a drug rehabilitation program. A second failure would result in termination.