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Cannabis in the Workplace: What Employers Need to Know

Cannabis has a long history in American culture dating all the way back to the 17th century. First introduced for the production of rope, sails, and clothing, cannabis eventually became a popular ingredient in medicinal products sold openly in pharmacies. However, by 1937, U.S. Congress began criminalizing the use of marijuana. Since then, the topic of medical and recreational use, as well as criminalizing and decriminalizing marijuana has been hotly debated.

In 1996, California was the first state to implement statewide medical marijuana laws in an effort to aid patients with AIDS, cancer, and other serious diseases that caused chronic pain. In 2014, Colorado became the first state to permit recreational marijuana use.

Since 2012, 18 states including Washington, D.C., have legalized recreational use of marijuana and 38 states, also including Washington, D.C., have legalized medical marijuana.

So, what do employers need to know beyond whether their state has legalized marijuana?

Laws and regulations 

Marijuana is most commonly used to manage chronic pain, insomnia, anxiety, spasticity, and even treating some life-threatening conditions. It is frequently used in place of opiates and is also an alternative to over-the-counter drugs that people with kidney, ulcer, or other gastroenterological issues cannot take (i.e., Advil, Aleve). Cannabidiol (“CBD”) is the least controversial due to its lack of intoxicating properties, whereas tetrahydrocannabinol (“THC”) is the active component of marijuana that creates the “high.”

Federally, marijuana is considered a controlled substance and is illegal under the Controlled Substances Act. However, the federal government typically allows states to regulate and enforce their own laws regarding cannabis use.

Tips for Employers

Start by establishing policies and procedures to address the use of marijuana in the workplace. For example, if you want to enforce a zero-tolerance drug policy, it is important to familiarize yourself with medical marijuana exceptions and state laws that may protect employees. Some employers have taken a stance of judging based on performance results. As an example, a cannabis lifestyle company may permit employees to use marijuana on breaks to promote creativity and productivity. Conversely, a California-based national fast food franchise owner terminated employees due to performance-related problems resulting from marijuana use while on the clock. The franchise owner stated that he is not against marijuana use so long as it doesn’t impact an employee’s productivity, and emphasized the importance of employers seeking professional legal advice to determine the best approach to regulating marijuana use in the workplace.

From another perspective, using marijuana can create safety liabilities for employers, especially those in industries or roles that are at higher risk for injury. For example, a study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine showed that there may be a statistical correlation with marijuana use and increase in workplace accidents. Additionally, many studies have also correlated marijuana use with impaired driving.

Marijuana use can also impact workers’ compensation laws.

Negative Impacts: 

  • In Wisconsin, if an employee is injured in the workplace as a result of intoxication of any controlled substance including marijuana, the employer is allowed to reduce workers’ compensation indemnity benefits by 15% with a maximum reduction of $15,000.
  • In Michigan, workplace injuries resulting from intoxication are not covered by workers’ compensation.

Positive Impacts:

  • However, that’s not to say marijuana always has a negative impact on workers’ compensation or workplace injuries. A study in the Health Economics journal reported that states with marijuana programs witnessed a 7% decrease in workers’ compensation claims. This decline in workers’ compensation claims could be the result of the impact marijuana has for medicinal purposes.

Second, employers should ensure they are following both state laws and employment policy regarding pre-employment and random drug screenings.

If you’re not familiar with your state’s laws and regulations, contact Greenleaf HR. We specialize in HR management and compliance specifically for the cannabis industry. Our team of industry experts helps you increase productivity, reduce liabilities, and address any questions or concerns you may have.

Because marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, employers are legally allowed to implement a drug-free workplace and enforce zero-tolerance policies. However, employers should also be aware of medical marijuana users and state protections for their use in the workplace or failure of employer-mandated drug screenings.

For example, numerous states have specific laws prohibiting employer discrimination against medical cannabis patients. Generally, employers may require pre-employment drug testing and at random drug screenings, as long as there is no discrimination against medical marijuana patients.

Whether you’re looking for additional resources and tools to manage cannabis-related decision-making or would like to streamline some of your administrative tasks, Greenleaf HR can help. Outside of HR management and compliance, we also offer payroll processing, benefits, and financial services customized for cannabis businesses. Learn more about Greenleaf HR by scheduling a business consultation where any of our specialists are eager to assist you!

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