Eight states and the District of Columbia currently allow recreational marijuana use, and 29 states plus the district permit its use for ostensibly medical purposes.
Some of marijuana legalization’s negative impacts are well publicized. The sharp increase in marijuana-related automobile fatalities in legalized states like Washington has spurred the American Automobile Association to oppose legalization.
Less publicized is legalization’s negative impact on the workplace. As pot use has risen, more employees are testing positive for marijuana at work. In just four years, the positivity rate for oral swab marijuana tests rose about 75 percent — from 5.1 percent in 2013 to 8.9 percent in 2016.
Further, Colorado and Washington, the first two states to legalize marijuana recreationally, have shown the largest recent growth in positive tests, outpacing the national average. Perhaps for that reason, employers from Colorado have started recruiting workers from other states after being unable to find in-state residents who can pass a drug test.
Some of this lack of coverage stems from misconceptions surrounding marijuana use, encouraged by a powerful marijuana lobby. Like the tobacco industry, the marijuana lobby has invested in downplaying the risks of marijuana use, and promoting laws restricting employers’ ability to discipline employees who test positive for the drug.
Getting beyond this misinformation is key to any human resources professional who wishes to understand the real risks of marijuana legalization for their business. To “clear the haze,” here are the top five misconceptions about marijuana’s impact on the workplace:
- Marijuana is safer than alcohol.
Perhaps the most popular slogan of the pot lobby is also one of the most misleading. It takes one fact about marijuana — it affects different parts of the brain than alcohol, and thus it is next to impossible to consume so much pot to stop your heart or breathing — and distorts it into a false statement about pot’s overall safety.
A study of thousands of employees, conducted when marijuana was far less potent, showed that marijuana users are much more likely to suffer workplace injuries or skip work. And more recent studies show that marijuana is even more detrimental than alcohol use in the workplace context. According to an analysis of the nation’s premier survey on drug use, pot users were more than twice as likely than alcohol users to have their substance use “cause serious problems at home, work, or school,” and more than twice as likely to take time from school, work, or other important activities to use their drug of choice.
The same survey reveals that, even when controlling for alcohol use, marijuana users are:
- 40 percent more likely to have missed at least one day of work in the last month due to illness/injury.
- 106 percent more likely to have missed at least one day of work in the last month because they “just didn’t want to be there.”
- It’s easy to tell if an employee is using marijuana at work.
Many people believe they can tell if someone has been using marijuana by its characteristic “skunky” smell. Legalization has changed all that.
The marijuana industry has brought cutting-edge technology to a drug that used to be grown in remote fields. Most importantly, they have learned how to extract THC, the plant’s psychoactive component — which can then be infused in almost any product under the sun to impart a high: candies, gum, lotion, even suppositories.
Edible products like the ones pictured have become so popular that they may now account for over 50 percent of the marijuana market. The problem for employers is threefold. First, edibles look like normal candy, meaning that employees can easily consume them at work undetected. Second, they smell like candy, so there’s no telltale odor. Third, edibles are generally several times more potent than marijuana cigarettes, so they impair the user more and for longer periods.
E-cigarettes permit users to smoke concentrated THC, whose purity can reach almost 100 percent. These vape devices are virtually impossible to tell apart from their nicotine-fueled cousins.
- I smoked a few joints back in the ’80s and nothing happened to me; what’s the big deal?
The industrialization of pot in legalized states has also greatly increased the potency of marijuana. In the 1980s and ’90s, marijuana was approximately 3 percent THC. Today, almost every joint sold in Colorado is over 16 percent THC — at least five times as strong. Edibles can range from 30 to 60 percent potency and concentrates can exceed 90 percent potency.
For employers, this means that (a) marijuana users are getting and staying high for much longer, (b) they are more likely to come to work impaired, and (c) any on-the-job use will render them significantly more impaired than you might remember from the 1980s.
- There’s no way to test for recent marijuana use.
Many people think that all drug tests for marijuana will give positive results even if the person hasn’t used pot for weeks or even months. (This is an argument the pot lobby uses to justify restricting drug testing.) Not so. New oral swab tests have a detection window measured in hours, not days.
- I can still fire or discipline an employee who fails a marijuana drug screen.
While many jurisdictions still give employers wide latitude with drug testing, the marijuana industry recently launched a campaign for employees’ “rights” to use marijuana, using lobbying and litigation.
The litigation push has had recent success. On July 17, Massachusetts’ highest court ruled that disability discrimination laws protected an employee with a medical marijuana card who claimed a “debilitating medical condition.” A Rhode Island trial court handed down a similar decision in June. And New Mexico courts have obliged employers to pay for their employees’ “medical marijuana” through the state’s workers’ compensation program.
The industry also lobbies state legislatures for laws preventing employers from disciplining employees for marijuana use save when (a) the employee is caught using at work, or (b) the employer can prove the employee was “actually impaired.”
There are two catches, of which the pot lobby is well-aware. First, edibles and vaporizers now make detecting on-the-job use very difficult. Second, there is no scientific per se limit to detect marijuana impairment, so proving “actual impairment” is practically quite challenging.
Marijuana use can have a major impact on safety and productivity in your business, especially if it operates in a state that has legalized the drug. Don’t be misled!
Jeffrey Zinsmeister is executive vice president, Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM)
Fellow, University of Florida Drug Policy Institute. Comment below or email firstname.lastname@example.org.