Medical Marijuana and Workplace Safety

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Companies have to determine how to integrate medical marijuana into their workplace safety standards.As more states legalize medical marijuana, employers must determine how to integrate what is still a controlled substance into their workplace safety standards. Doing so is no easy task.

When dealing with medical marijuana and workplace safety, employers must consider various state and federal regulations as well as state and federal employee rights laws.

Because all marijuana – even medical marijuana and medications based on it – causes impairment, establishing workplace safety rules around its use can be a challenge.

“Although studies have suggested that marijuana may be used with reasonable safety in some controlled environments, there are potential consequences to its use that necessitate employer scrutiny and concern,” according to “Medical Marijuana in the Workplace,” in Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

Dealing with medical marijuana use in the workplace is one of the many challenges ahead for those in occupational health and safety careers. An online emergency management degree can help current and future occupational safety professionals prepare to take on these tasks.

Laws Governing Marijuana Use

Marijuana is a Schedule 1 controlled substance – in the same category as heroin and LSD – which means that the federal government views it as a dangerous drug with high potential for abuse.

A majority of states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana, according to “Marijuana in the Workplace” in OH&S Online. Eleven states have passed laws approving it for recreational use.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t test or regulate medical marijuana the way it does other prescription drugs. The exceptions are Marinol® and Syndros®, which are prescribed for the nausea, vomiting, and loss of appetite related to chemotherapy, AIDS, or anorexia. Both contain a pharmaceutical version of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the component of marijuana that causes impairment.

Prior to recent legal changes, many companies helped ensure workplace safety by testing employees for drug use. Now some state laws include employee protections for the use of medical marijuana.

A recent New Jersey law, for example, called the Jake Honig Compassionate Use Medical Cannabis Act, states that:

  • Employers are prohibited from taking any “adverse employment action” against workers who are registered qualifying patients (meaning those who have registered with the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission)

and that:

  • Employees and job applicants have the right to explain any positive test results.

However, such legislation does not mean that employees are free to use marijuana while on the job. In fact, according to Occupational Health and Safety Magazine, the law, “empowers employers to prohibit (or not prohibit) employees from possessing or taking use of intoxicating substances ‘during work hours or on the premises of the workplace outside of work hours…’ Businesses are also not required to commit to any policy that would cause them to be in violation of federal law or that would result in the loss of a federal contract or funding.”

Creating Rules Around Medical Marijuana in the Workplace

So how can companies safely address the issue of medical marijuana in the workplace?

Experts say that employers should:

  • Develop sound policies around the use of medical marijuana, and be clear about what is acceptable and not acceptable
  • Educate employees about the physical and psychological effects of marijuana, including poor concentration, short-term memory loss, and the loss of certain psychomotor skills
  • Require that employees approved to use medical marijuana provide documentation from their medical provider
  • Maintain a firm stance about drug tests in compliance with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s rules and guidelines and any state laws regarding the use of drug tests
  • Develop a firm policy around the use of medical marijuana in compliance with the American Disabilities Act and any state laws that protect against disability discrimination.

Because employees are protected by a variety of workplace discrimination laws, companies must walk a delicate line between safety and workers’ rights.

For safety purposes, Jackie Pirone, global marketing director for OraSure Technologies, a substance abuse testing company, writes in “Marijuana in the Workplace” for OH&S that “employers’ policies should restrict marijuana use to the extent permitted by law.” She also notes that “workplace safety and productivity should be a top priority for employers, and marijuana impairment can have an enormous impact.”

The American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM) concurs.

“Marijuana’s legalization in a number of U.S. states—medically recreationally or both—has had huge public and workplace health implications,” according to “How Cannabis and Workplace Safety Coexist—or Don’t” in OH&S.

The article goes on to cite a letter that the ACOEM sent Congress in October 2019.

“While there is much not known about marijuana, what is known is that marijuana can cause impairment which will interfere with safe and acceptable performance in the workplace,” ACOEM President Dr. Steven Frangos writes.

“Furthermore, this is particularly concerning for those individuals working in safety-sensitive positions where impairment can affect the health and safety of other workers, customers, the general public, or others.”

Additional states are on track to approve medical or recreational use of marijuana. A master’s degree can prepare occupational health and safety professionals to be able to understand how to balance employees’ legal rights to these products with overall workplace safety.

About Eastern Kentucky University’s Online Master of Science in Safety, Security and Emergency Management Program

Eastern Kentucky University’s online safety, security and emergency management degree program exposes students to the essential components of safety, security and emergency management. The program allows students to customize their experience through a Multidisciplinary Track or concentrations in Corporate Security Operations, Occupational Safety, or Emergency Management and Disaster Resilience. The concentrations are also available as stand-alone graduate certificates, independent of a master’s degree.

EKU is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. For more information, contact Eastern Kentucky University now.

Recommended Reading:

Drugs, Alcohol and Workplace Safety

Workers’ Rights in the United States

Changing Workplace Culture for Improved Safety Performance


Marijuana in the Workplace: Occupational Health and Safety

Medical Marijuana in the Workplace: Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine

Federal Marijuana Laws: FindLaw

New Jersey Amends Medical Marijuana Law to Include Protections for Employees and Employers: Occupational Health and Safety

Marijuana in the Workplace: Occupational Health and Safety

How Cannabis and Workplace Safety Exist – or Don’t: Occupational Health and Safety

Medical Marijuana Use Worker Protections Growing, Rulings Show: Bloomberg Law

Marijuana at Work: What Employers Need to Know: National Safety Council

Marijuana and Workplace Safety and Wellness: EHS Daily Advisor