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Marijuana Legalization and Workplace Safety: A Short-Lived Hysteria

  • by Kevin Mahmalji, NORML Outreach Director October 3, 2018

    With 47 states and the District of Columbia permitting the use of marijuana or its extracts in some form, new questions concerning employers’ rights, lawful marijuana use by employees, and maintaining a safe workplace have been raised. The biggest issue? While it’s legal to possess and consume marijuana in several states, it’s still illegal under federal law, an inconsistency that has created some confusion for employers who are unsure how to address marijuana in the workplace from a policy perspective. This untenable situation puts millions of law-abiding and responsible adults at risk of losing their employment simply because of a THC-positive drug test.

    Workplace Drug Testing

    Urinalysis testing is the most common form of pre-employment and workplace drug testing, but because it only detects trace metabolites (inert waste-products) of past use of a wide range of substances, they fail to prove either impairment or how recently marijuana was consumed. This activity is particularly discriminatory in the case of marijuana, where such metabolites may be detectable for weeks or even months after consumption.

    Surprisingly, there is no requirement for most private employers to have a drug-free workplace policy of any kind. However, there are a few exceptions such as federal contractors and safety-sensitive positions (e.g. airline pilots, truck and bus drivers, train conductors, etc.). Even employers who are required to maintain a drug-free workplace are not required to use drug testing as a means to enforce company policies.

    Impairment Detection

    New technology developed in recent years provides an extraordinary opportunity to change the way we discuss the issue of workplace drug testing. By embracing a new strategy that emphasizes the importance of impairment detection and workplace safety, we can reframe the conversation to focus on creating a 21st century workplace that’s free of dangerous impairment levels, not just from illegal substances, but also alcohol, prescription drugs, stress, and fatigue.  

    That’s why we’re stressing the importance of impairment detection. One example of such a technology is from Predictive Safety, a company based in Centennial, Colorado that created AlertMeter, which measures a person’s cognitive abilities with a 60 second test and can easily be used on most smart devices.

    “The road to normalization is about detecting impairment, not past marijuana use. The only thing that should matter is, ‘Are you fit for work?,’ not, ‘Have you ingested marijuana?,’” said Carol Setters of Predictive Safety.

    Vforge, an aluminum fabrication company has been using this new technology for several years. As a result, they’ve seen a 90% decrease in drug testing costs and a 70% reduction in worker compensation claims – further proof that a new strategy focused on impairment detection is not only beneficial for employees, but more profitable for companies as well. This changes the dynamic of the conversation all together.

    AlertMeter: https://vimeo.com/253068230

    Unlike drug tests that do not measure impairment, implementing reasonable impairment testing contributes to safe workplaces while protecting individual rights.

    What’s Being Done?

    NORML chapters from around the country are shifting their attention to protecting honest, hardworking marijuana consumers from antiquated, discriminatory workplace drug-testing practices, in particular the use of random, suspicionless urine testing. Earlier this year NORML chapters in Colorado and California worked diligently to address the issue legislatively, but experienced push back from conservative lawmakers and pro-business organizations, respectively.

    Several states including Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine*, Minnesota, Nevada, New York, Pennsylvania Massachusetts and Rhode Island currently prohibit employers from discriminating against workers based on their status as a medical marijuana patient. Laws in Arizona, Delaware, and Minnesota specify that a positive drug test alone does not indicate impairment. Similar protections have long applied to medical use of opiates and other prescription drugs.

    Looking ahead, NORML chapters in California, Colorado, Oregon, Nevada, and Washington are planning their legislative strategies and educating lawmakers on the issue in advance of their 2019 state legislative sessions. We’ll likely see legislation to address workplace drug testing introduced in California, Oregon and Colorado while chapters in other states will focus their time and energy on educational efforts.

    At the federal level, Representative Charlie Crist recently introduced H.R. 6589: The Fairness in Federal Drug Testing Under State Laws Act, bipartisan legislation that would explicitly prohibit federal agencies from discriminating against workers solely because of their status as a marijuana consumer, or testing positive for marijuana use on a workplace drug test.

    Marijuana Legalization and Workplace Safety

    Mounting evidence continues to prove there is no logical reason why adult marijuana consumers should be treated with any less respect, restricted more severely, and denied the same privileges we extend to responsible adults who enjoy a cocktail after a long day at the office. As a matter of fact, researchers with Colorado State University, Montana State University, and American University came to the conclusion that the legalization and regulation of medical marijuana is associated with a 19.5% reduction in the expected number of workplace fatalities.

    “Our results suggest that legalizing medical marijuana leads to a reduction in workplace fatalities among workers aged 25–44. This reduction may be the result of workers substituting marijuana in place of alcohol and other substances that can impair cognitive function and motor skills.”

    Read more here: http://blog.norml.org/2018/08/10/study-medical-cannabis-access-laws-associated-with-fewer-workplace-fatalities/

    Additionally, researchers with Quest Diagnostics recently found that the rate of positive drug tests in Colorado, where medical and adult-use marijuana is legal, increased by 1% between 2016 and 2017 while the national average increased by 4% during the same timeframe.

    “When Colorado and Washington state legalized recreational marijuana, a short-lived spike occurred in the rate of positive drug tests, but it has since tapered off,” said Barry Sample, Quest’s senior director for science and technology.

    Read more here: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/legal-marijuana-hasnt-led-to-epidemic-of-high-workers/

    The following factsheet highlights several recent peer-reviewed studies assessing the potential impact of marijuana regulation on workplace safety and performance: http://norml.org/aboutmarijuana/item/marijuana-legalization-and-impact-on-the-workplace

    Considering marijuana’s increasingly legal status and availability in states across the country, consumers should no longer be forced to choose between a job and consuming a legal substance that doesn’t impair the facilities because of outdated employment practices.

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