Lots of Gray Areas in Marijuana Landscape, Panelists Say

A June 12 panel discussion at the ASSP Safety 2019 conference examined the "crazy quilt" of U.S. laws growing up around the legalization of medical and recreational marijuana, how employers should respond to incidents and accommodate workers who seek help for opioid addiction, and how soon there could be a test to measure marijuana impairment.

NEW ORLEANS -- One of the final general sessions at the American Society of Safety Professionals' #Safety2019 Conference and Exposition was a June 12 panel discussion exploring the implications of widespread marijuana legalization in the United States for employers, workers, and safety and HR professionals. Not surprisingly, it drew a large audience in a ballroom of the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, and it left as many questions unanswered as answered. In short, the patchwork of laws regarding legal medical marijuana is a "crazy quilt," panelist Adele Abrams, president of the Law Office of Adele Abrams, PC, said, with 33 states and the District of Columbia enacting a variety of laws and courts working to interpret them.

"Keep on top of the laws. They are changing as we speak," advised another panelist, Eldeen Pozniak of Pozniak Safety Associates, Inc., in Saskatchewan, Canada, who said employers there are much less free than U.S. employers to conduct pre-employment or random drug tests of their workers. Yet Canada has legalized both medical and recreational marijuana.

Thom Kramer, managing principal at LJB Inc. and an ASSP board member, moderated the discussion. The other two panelists were Dr. Marcos Iglesias, M.D., senior vice president and chief medical officer at Broadspire; and Stephanie Hopper, CEO of KSF Consulting in Denver, Colo., whose company is involved in the cannabis industry.

Iglesias spoke most strongly about what he described as the problems legalizing marijuana is causing. "As a society, we know very little about marijuana," he said. "We have a rosy view of marijuana. . . . Our knowledge is very unscientific. We don't know."

Abrams said she attended an FDA hearing two weeks ago on CBD products, which are derived from hemp but purported to contain no THC and thus be safe to use. "What came from that hearing is that we are in the wild, wild West when it comes to CBD," she said, adding that a host of CBD-containing products are available commercially but are not regulated by FDA, and the content of the products varies widely. She said a shop steward had told her that a worker who had taken CBP products and narrowly failed a employer's drug test has been barred from working on job sites for seven years as a result.

In that case, the worker was likely not impaired. That question came up -- how can a safety professional or employer conduct a test to prove a worker is impaired by marijuana? -- and the answer was, there is no test. "There isn't one, and I doubt there will be one in the near future," Iglesias said. He stressed that employers should focus on detecting and responding to impairment, regardless of the cause, rather than focusing on whether marijuana is causing it. "It's really about safety. It's not about the substance," he said.

Iglesias also dismissed the idea that legalizing marijuana use will help to reduce the opioids crisis as people who have been using opioids switch to less-harmful marijuana. "Be careful when you hear, 'Marijuana is going to take us out of the opioids crisis,' because I don't believe it will," he said.

Asked what safety professionals in the audience should advise their senior management to do in the face of legalization, Pozniak said, "If you have a drug and alcohol policy, change it to a 'fit for work' policy," defining what fitness for work is, identifying safety-sensitive positions at the company, and training managers to recognize impairment.

Hopper recommended creating a "see something, say something" culture and one where workers will help one another, which will prevent cover-ups, she said.

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