When it comes to marijuana use, perceptions and laws have changed drastically in recent years. As of March 2017, 28 states and the District of Columbia have laws that legalize marijuana to varying degrees and several other states may soon join them. Most of these laws allow for use of medical marijuana, although some also allow recreational use. However, marijuana is still an illegal drug under federal law.

Shifting Attitudes and Misconceptions
Cultural changes, shifting employee attitudes, as well as potentially conflicting state and federal laws present serious challenges for employers who enforce drug-free workplace programs. Often times this mix of complicated and contradictory circumstances may make small business owners want to ignore the situation, leaving them unsure of how, or if, they can support their drug-free workplace policies. In reality, doing nothing could be a mistake–especially if their employees are in safety-sensitive roles such as driving or operating heavy machinery.

Since an employer’s primary responsibility is to provide a safe workplace environment, small business owners are not required to accommodate the use of illicit drugs or employees who are working under the influence, particularly if potential impairment puts others at risk. The wording in state laws varies, but medical marijuana patients are not exempt from the rules and testing in safety-based employer substance abuse programs.

“Our interest is helping injured workers get back to work, and providing coverage for evidence-based care that has been shown to get people back to work quicker,” says Dr. Craig Ross, regional medical director at Liberty Mutual Insurance. There is little evidence that medical marijuana is an effective treatment for workplace injuries, 80 percent of which are musculoskeletal, he adds. However, employees who work under the influence of marijuana could represent a danger to themselves and others in the workplace.

In addition to the lack of evidence with regard to efficacy, rules about who can recommend and dispense medical marijuana vary from state to state. “Currently medical marijuana is still classified as a Schedule I narcotic by the DEA,” says Ross, “meaning that medical doctors cannot ‘prescribe’ medical marijuana.” However, physicians can order or recommend medical marijuana, if permissible by under that state’s law. The actual dispensing of medical marijuana is done by practitioners who are not medical doctors.

Maintaining Workplace Safety
Employers who are concerned about marijuana use and attempting to address the problem should develop a safety-based formal Drug-Free Workplace Program that includes some key elements.

Written substance abuse policy. It is critical that you create a written policy that applies to all employees and spells out your rules and expectations. Work with your legal counsel to ensure that your policy complies with all local, state and federal laws and regulations.

Supervisor training. Supervisors should be familiar with the program rules and procedures. They should be trained to recognize when a reasonable suspicion test is appropriate; how to document a problem; and how to handle confidentiality issues.

Employee education. All employees should participate in training that familiarizes them with the company’s drug-free workplace policy and helps them understand the consequences for violating the rules. Signed acknowledgment forms should be obtained.

Drug and alcohol testing. Consider conducting drug tests that are permitted within the states where you operate. Without outlining and enforcing consequences of failing a test, your program has little chance to impact workers.

Ongoing communication. Raise awareness of your company’s drug-free workplace policies by integrating the topic in safety meetings, employee communications, newsletters, and workplace signage.

While state laws governing marijuana use may change, your duty to keep your workers, customers and others safe does not. A Drug-Free Workplace Program is a fundamental factor in ensuring that impaired employees are not putting your business in jeopardy.


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