The Thorny Implications of Legalized Marijuana

Job safety advocates are worried that states’ efforts to legalize marijuana could endanger workers if employers don’t have the right to ban workers in “safety-sensitive” positions from off-work use of marijuana or products that contain tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the plant’s psychoactive chemical. As Bloomberg Environment reports, the National Safety Council is worried because “there is no level of cannabis use that is safe or acceptable for employees who work in safety-sensitive positions,” which it defines as those where a mistake can threaten the life and health of others.

Banning marijuana in the workplace isn’t the issue: It’s the off-hours use of marijuana and THC-containing foods or drinks that’s the sticking point. The American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM) says the challenge for employers is that there is no scientific or legally accepted way to determine if a worker was impaired because of off-hours marijuana use. The safest option, says ACOEM, is for employers to ban any marijuana use by workers in safety-sensitive jobs. But it’s not clear how far employers can go in defining “safety-sensitive” positions or in controlling the off-hours activities of their employees.

The National Safety Council, ACOEM and the American Industrial Hygiene Association have written to state officials to support the right of employers to ban off-hours use of marijuana by employees on the grounds that it is the employer’s responsibility to provide a safe workplace for employees. Federally, bills that have been introduced in the House and the Senate to declassify marijuana as a regulated drug don’t address whether most employers would be able to prohibit workers from using cannabis.

As the law evolves, this is an issue that industrial companies and their attorneys will be following closely. It’s also an area where today’s productive cooperation among management and organized labor on issues of workplace safety and substance use can be expanded to the benefit of everyone.

We’ll be addressing workplace drug use and other safety, health and well-being issues at IndEx 2020, so stay tuned.