Marijuana in the Workplace: What Employers Need to Know

  • ​Legalization of marijuana – whether for medical or recreational use – is rolling out across the country. It's having an enormous impact on employers, who now have to ask:

    • How is marijuana use impacting safety on the job?
    • Can an employee file a discrimination lawsuit if medical marijuana use doesn't align with our organization's drug policy?
    • How is legalized marijuana affecting the bottom line?
    • What does a defensible drug policy look like today?


    Cannabis Controversy


    Christine Clearwater, president of Drug-free Solutions Group, specializes in substance abuse prevention in the workplace. In a webinar for the National Safety Council, she says marijuana legalization should not lead to more lenient employer drug policies. She says the highly politicized battle over marijuana laws can drown out statistics employers should be aware of:

    • Car crashes involving marijuana went up 300% between 2010 and 2013, and they continue to rise as more states legalize the drug
    • Marijuana is 10 to 20 times stronger today than it was in the 1960s and '70s
    • Marijuana is an addictive drug


    Clearwater says employers must put moral, legal and ethical concerns aside when drafting policies around marijuana. These are business decisions, and important ones at that.

    How Does Marijuana Use Impact Job Safety?


    THC in marijuana affects depth perception, reaction time, coordination and other motor skills, and it creates sensory distortion. For someone operating machinery, driving a forklift or delivering products in a vehicle, these effects can be deadly.

    According to a study reported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, employees who tested positive for marijuana had 55% more industrial accidents, 85% more injuries and 75% greater absenteeism compared to those who tested negative. Also impacting the bottom line are:

    • Decreased productivity
    • Increased worker compensation and unemployment compensation claims
    • High turnover
    • Lawsuits

    Clearwater says employers can expect to spend about $7,000 per year on an employee who abuses drugs – and that does not include unemployment claims or legal action. About one out of six employees has a substance abuse problem; in a company with 500 employees, that's nearly $600,000 a year.  Employers must decide how they want to positions themselves as an organization, she says.

    Most Case Law Sides with the Employer


    While medical marijuana-using employees have mounted legal challenges, state statutes usually side with employers who reject potential employees or reprimand workers that test positive for cannabis, even if they have a medical marijuana card. Some states, like Connecticut, Illinois, Maine and Rhode Island, protect employee rights and safeguard against disciplinary action for medical marijuana use, however.

    Marijuana is still illegal according to federal law, which classifies it as a Schedule I drug with no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. Federal law supersedes state law.

    • The Americans with Disabilities Act also sides with the employer when it comes to medical marijuana
    • Most states will not pay worker compensation to an employee who was under the influence at the time of an accident
    • Most state health insurance programs will not pay for medical marijuana.


    Finding a Sober Workforce


    Employers in safety-sensitive industries are more likely to have zero-tolerance policies when it comes to marijuana use, and new state marijuana laws are making it more difficult to find workers that meet strict drug-testing criteria, according to the Society for Human Resources Management. One construction company in Colorado has had to look out of state to find drug-free workers.

    Marijuana is the most frequently used illicit drug of abuse in the United States and the drug most often detected in workplace drug testing. In 2014, about 6.8 million adults ages 18 to 25 (19.6%) and about 13.5 million adults ages 26 and older (6.6%) used marijuana.

    A solid workplace drug policy can go a long way to keeping your organization drug-free.


    What makes a good drug policy?


    Studies show drug testing works; employees are three times less likely to produce a positive test result if they know they will be tested. An expanded testing panel that also includes the most commonly abused prescription drugs may better protect your workforce.

    An employer policy also should include:

    • Proper management training to make managers more likely to enforce the policy
    • Access to support for employees with drug problems, which can range from a formal assistance program to a referral to local resources
    • Clearly defined use and possession parameters for employees
    • Established rules for post-accident testing
    • Rules on how you will handle an employee's conviction or arrest


    A drug policy must be very specific and supported by workplace procedures to reduce the chance of litigation. Drug policy and workplace procedures should be reviewed by a lawyer to ensure they comply with state laws. And, policy must be updated frequently to keep up with changing laws and attitudes. The health and safety of your workforce depends on it.

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