Legalized Marijuana and Its Effect on the Workplace

What does an employer do about relaxed drug laws? Watch for impairment and be prepared to confront it as a safety issue.

In 2012, both Washington state and Colorado passed legislation effectively legalizing marijuana for adult recreational us, the ideology put forth being that marijuana is like or even safer than alcohol and therefore should be at the discretion of the adult user for private, personal use. In Colorado, the legislation was made as an amendment to that state’s constitution and included language pertaining to the employer and the workplace. Washington had no such provision. Immediate speculation began as to how these new laws would affect the workplace, from both employers and employees. As with any other item of great change, conjecture and guesswork have run the gamut, not only in these two states, but also nationwide. Ballot initiatives are proceeding in nearly every state for further easing of restrictions on marijuana use, and the prevalent public perception seemingly leans toward marijuana being viewed as a relatively harmless substance.

This is a most common misperception among those who may not be acutely aware of routine, ongoing safety concerns in the workplace. To make matters worse, readily available public information is dreadfully lacking surrounding the scientific studies that delineate the nature of current marijuana products and their impact to the worker.

To gain clarity, this article will first describe the issues pertaining to marijuana's effect on the individual and sum up what steps an employer can take to keep a safe work environment.

Marijuana 2013
A good thing to remember about current marijuana products is, "This is not your daddy's ditch weed." The pot used in the '60s and '70s had a very low THC content of 2-3 percent. THC stands for Delta-9 Tetrahydrocannabinol and is the main psychoactive component in marijuana. The potency and effect of marijuana are directly related to the THC content.

THC affects the "volume control" in the brain that regulates pleasure, mood pain, appetite, motivation, and memory, among other cognitive functions. Since the mid-'90s, THC content has been consistently in the 12-15 percent range. Today it is not uncommon for cannabis-infused byproducts to be routinely at 25-35 percent THC content. What does this mean?

More THC means a longer lasting and more acute "high." It also means greater potential for addiction. In Colorado, THC content has no limitation under the new law. Proponents state that, if they choose to consume 100 percent THC, it is their right to do so.

New ingestion methods for marijuana, called "dabs," claim that one toke gets you stoned. Solidified wax is extracted from hash oil with a solvent (typically butane) that contains THC concentrates anywhere from 70-90 percent. The hottest trend among marijuana connoisseurs, dabs cause even some hard-core marijuana proponents to express caution. In 2012, a young woman was hospitalized from a near-fatal allergic reaction in which her throat closed up after smoking dabs. According to High Times Magazine, free samples were given out at the Los Angeles Cannabis Cup in February 2013 where participants reportedly passed out and got sick from the sudden massive THC exposure. (Harvey, 2013) (Black, 2012)

As hash oils are refined and greater concentrates are extracted, marijuana-infused edible products continue to grow in potency and visibility. Edibles range in form from marijuana-laced sodas, gummy bears, and breakfast cereals to butter, honey, and trail mix, making it very hard to tell if someone might be partaking in marijuana consumption on his daily lunch break.

Addiction and Side-Effect Concerns
In 2010, the National Study on Drug Use and Health stated that approximately 18 percent of people ages 12 and older enter drug abuse treatment programs with marijuana listed as their primary drug of abuse. (NIDA, 2012) That same study said that 61 percent of persons under the age of 15 reported marijuana as their primary drug of abuse, which will have a certain impact to the future hirable workforce in the United States.

For the average reasonable-cause training, the most frequently stated signs of marijuana impairment continue to be:

  • Delayed decision-making
  • Erratic cognitive function
  • Diminished concentration
  • Distortions in time
  • Visual distance tracking
  • Impaired memory
  • Paranoia
  • Drowsiness

With increased potency and personal-account reports of those who use products such as dabs, additional signs should include: seizures, difficulty breathing, collapsed lung, passing out, acute illness requiring medical treatment, and potential breathing assistance.

Workplace Solutions
So what does an employer do about relaxed drug laws?

First of all, get educated. Recognize the signs and symptoms of all substance abuse that can impact safety in the workplace. Impaired employees are not safe employees. One of the challenges with marijuana is that a “presence-in-system” drug screen may not necessarily indicate impairment. Proponents will claim an individual cannot be impaired past four hours of the use of marijuana, however, medical science has proven that consistent THC levels maintained in the body at 15 ng/mL can negatively impact a driver’s ability to multi-task and respond appropriately to stimulus. (Hartman, 2012) Watch for impairment and be prepared to confront it as a safety issue.

Second, review your company's written drug and alcohol policy to ensure that clarity has been provided to issues surrounding impairment of any kind and that your policy is actively enforced. Words on paper have no impact if they are not carried out.

It will be critical in these times of progressing marijuana legalization that employers understand the negative impact of impairment on each employee's position description. Who can operate high? Should there be exceptions for those who are high-functioning drug users? These may sound like ridiculous questions to consider, but the Cannabis Industry Council has promised to make lawsuits over such issues and fight for an individual's right to work high, as long as that person's job is not impacted. (Ryan, 2013)

Finally, employers must be prepared to deal with Reasonable Cause (For Cause or Suspicion) situations in which a potentially impaired employee is required to undergo drug and alcohol testing. Just as one would not find it acceptable for an employee to be performing job duties while intoxicated, the employer will need to exercise vigilance to understand marijuana impairment and keep the same standards, regardless of the challenges. Managers, supervisors, and HR personnel should be trained in the signs, symptoms, and responses to a Reasonable Cause situation so that everyone is aware of how to maintain the safest possible working environment.

Employment attorneys across the United States seem to have mixed feelings on these issues, with many recommending that no immediate, additional action is needed, taking a "wait and see" approach due to the fact that marijuana is still federally classified as a Schedule 1 Controlled Substance and therefore illegal. But for those exposed to the changing climates in Colorado and Washington, it is clear that taking every precaution to protect workplaces from accidents, lost time, lost productivity, high employee turnover, and other liabilities is increasingly necessary in the changing culture of perceptions about recreational drug use.

This article originally appeared in the September 2013 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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