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Safety Management Insights

Legal Medical Marijuana Use and Employee Safety

Posted by Don Brown on Nov 8, 2016 8:30:00 AM

Occupational_Safety_Equipment-1.jpgMedical marijuana is now legal in 25 states (along with Washington, D.C.), and even a few states have legalized recreational cannabis. Most of these legal changes occurred within the last 10 years, and while marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, prosecuting it has become a low priority.

Given marijuana’s intoxicating properties — and the importance of staying alert on the job — employers are wondering how its legalization will affect their employees’ safety. There are also many new legal questions and concerns: Can I (and should I) still drug test my workers? Can I penalize employees for doing something that’s technically legal? What happens if a worker hurts themselves or others while under the influence? To help you answer some of these questions, we’ve provided a few of the most important facts on medical marijuana and its influence on workplace policies.

Where It’s Legal

As of now, medical marijuana has been legalized in 25 states and Washington, D.C. To see where your state stands, check out this full list. If you’ve just been out of the loop the last few years, these states have legalized (or at least passed legalization legislation) since 2010.

  • Arizona
  • Connecticut
  • Washington, D.C.
  • Delaware
  • Illinois
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Minnesota
  • New Hampshire
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • Ohio
  • Pennsylvania

Drug Testing

In some states where medical marijuana is legal, employers cannot discriminate against employees who test positive, as long as they have a prescription. Just like alcohol, however, marijuana can still lead to on-the-job impairment. Specific laws vary by state, but in most cases, you are well within your rights as an employer to reprimand a worker for being high (or drunk) on the job.

Furthermore, many states have included exemptions in their laws for employers with zero-tolerance drug policies. In these cases, employers can mandate drug tests and terminate employees who test positive without violating their states’ laws. In fact, only Arizona, Delaware and Minnesota explicitly prohibit all private employers from firing medical marijuana patients.

Finally, because marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, anyone working for a federal employer is prohibited from using marijuana for any reason at all at any time. The same applies to general contractors and subcontractors working under government contracts.

Safety Concerns

Society has become far more accepting of marijuana, but like alcohol, marijuana poses risks to workers. In May 2015, an article in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicinenoted a likely statistical association between illicit drug use — including marijuana — and workplace accidents. Nationwide use of the drug has also dramatically increased, and a survey from the National Institutes of Health found that use nearly doubled from 2001 to 2013, from 4.1 to 9.5 percent of the population. The same study found that addiction rates rose from 1.5 to 2.9 percent.

Should you be concerned? Regardless of your opinions on marijuana’s legality, use and usefulness, it does pose risks to users’ physical and cognitive abilities. The National Institute on Drug Abuse notes that short-term effects include impaired body movement, difficulty with thinking and problem-solving, memory problems and an altered sense of time. It also impairs attentiveness, motor coordination and reaction time.

Determining Your Policies

Ultimately, the best way to protect your workers and your company — physically, legally and financially — is to fully understand your state’s laws related to medical marijuana and workplace drug testing and enforcement. Here are a few helpful tips for applying what you learn:

Consult an attorney. An attorney familiar with employment law can help you bring your company policies in line with frequently changing marijuana laws. You may find that even seemingly sensible policies are not in line with recent legislation.

Communicate your expectations (and reasons). No matter what marijuana policies you decide upon, you’ll need to clearly communicate your expectations. Stress the importance of a drug-free workplace, and explain how it will make everyone safer and more productive in the long run.

Train workers on your changes. If you change your policies, you’ll need to educate all workers on their new expectations, as well as potential penalties for noncompliance. You also may need to train HR personnel, supervisors and managers on new policies related to drug screening, health records and appropriate actions following test results.

Continue drug testing. Between 10 and 20 percent of American workers who die on the job are found to have been under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Even if you decide on a relatively lax medical marijuana policy, you’ll need to keep screening for intoxication during working hours, as well as the presence of other more harmful and illicit drugs.

Track incidents. What is the true impact of drug abuse on your workers’ health and safety? The only way to find out is to collect data on your accidents and illnesses. Weeks, months and even years of detailed incident data can show you exactly where intoxication is posing the biggest risk to your employees. To collect, monitor and report on that data quickly and efficiently, check out the BasicSafe Investigation and Reporting tool.

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