Cannabis Really Is Complicated

Now is the time to address safety implications for employers.

Lorraine M. Martin
November 04, 2019

The ongoing decriminalization of cannabis, not just for medical but also for recreational purposes, is changing our country’s safety conversation. A majority of Americans now live in a state that allows either medical or recreational use. While the public has come to support easing legal restrictions on marijuana, most recognize that this substance carries genuine risks that employers and public health officials must tackle.

This year, our home state of Illinois became the 11th state to legalize recreational marijuana use for adults. We worry that some states are moving toward decriminalization without incorporating appropriate safety measures. History tells us that this could have grave consequences.

It took decades to understand and respond to the significant public health impacts stemming from alcohol and tobacco, and to eliminate second-hand tobacco exposure from our workplaces. In those intervening years, too many lives were cut short. We can’t afford to wait to address the safety and health risks posed by marijuana. We already know that cannabis is an impairing substance, just like alcohol, opioid painkillers and other drugs. Cannabis can impact judgement, reflexes and cognitive dexterity, increasing the risk of injury both behind the wheel and in the workplace.

Our recent surveys reveal there is significant public and employer concern regarding impairment at work and on the road. Seventy-two percent of public survey respondents said they are apprehensive about their own safety and the safety of loved ones due to marijuana impairment on the road. This underscores the importance of educating drivers and the public about marijuana impairment. Eighty-one percent of employers said they were concerned about cannabis impairment in the workplace, and 55% of the public survey respondents told us employers should test for it, even if it is legal at the state level for either medical or recreational use.

In order to understand this issue better, we convened world-renowned experts to discuss current trends and safety implications for employers, drawing from latest available information from the fields of toxicology, medicine, driving safety and the legal arena. The big takeaway is that cannabis is already impacting workplace and road safety, and it will continue to do so. We have just started to scratch the surface of what research can tell us about marijuana impairment.

Meanwhile, states with legal recreational or medical marijuana have reported an increase in motor vehicle crashes involving THC, the psychoactive substance in cannabis. However, we don’t yet have dependable road-side impairment testing for cannabis akin to the Breathalyzer for alcohol, and correlation does not equal causation. We also lack solid data indicating the impact cannabis has on the workplace. Yet common sense tells us that because cannabis is an impairing substance, it can put those who use it in potentially life-threatening situations. In order to make data-driven decisions in regard to public safety and health, we need to hasten our research efforts to better understand how cannabis affects humans across the life span, so we can develop and implement appropriate counter-measures.

Employers unfortunately don’t have the benefit of waiting for the results of long-term research studies or legalization implementation before they take action. A majority of employers recognize that all substance use, including opioids and marijuana, directly impacts their workforce and their bottom line. Courts have tended to side with employers that enforce substance-free workplace policies, and medical marijuana use is not covered by either Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The National Safety Council supports substance-free workplaces, and encourages employers to create clear guidelines and policies to eliminate confusion.

When it comes to activities such as driving, operating machinery and managing high-consequence work environments with little margin for error, addressing impairment cannot fall by the wayside. This is especially true at a time when injuries and fatalities continue to be a top concern for workplaces across multiple industries. It is for this reason that we are calling on employers to restrict cannabis use for those in safety sensitive positions – regardless of whether cannabis consumption is allowed by their state.

There is much more we need to learn. The cannabis conversation is far from over, but in the interest of safety, we need to move forward with caution.

Lorraine M. Martin

Lorraine M. Martin is president and CEO of the National Safety Council.

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