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The decriminalization of cannabis – more universally known as marijuana – for both medicinal and recreational purposes has been a hot-button topic for many Americans. Thirty-four states, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands1 all have some form of marijuana decriminalization, with 10 of those states and the District of Columbia having decriminalized marijuana for recreational use. You can view all state marijuana laws here.

Many states are decriminalizing in the hope of a new revenue source to increase training of law enforcement, as well as to support traffic safety resource prosecutors (TSRPs), experienced prosecutors, DWI courts, toxicology laboratory staffing and court testimony costs.2 Decriminalizing cannabis also brings new safety implications to the workplace and employers are likely to be impacted – if not immediately, then eventually. Businesses must be prepared before a law is enacted, with comprehensive workplace policies addressing cannabis use.

THC, the psychoactive part of cannabis, impairs mental and physical activities, and studies have found that once marijuana is decriminalized or recreational, legal usage goes up.3 As the number of users grow, so do safety concerns.

Because it is an impairing substance, marijuana use can create hazards both on and off the job. And, those hazards have costs. Preventable injuries cost the nation $967.9 billion annually, according to the National Safety Council (NSC) Injury Facts. In the workplace specifically, injuries cost society $161.5 billion in 2017, including wage and productivity losses of $50.7 billion. Medical expenses have reached $34.3 billion and administrative expenses most recently totaled $52 billion.

Furthermore, states that have decriminalized marijuana may be seeing related safety repercussions, at least on the roadways. NSC estimates show motor vehicle deaths are up in Alaska, California and Oregon, all states with decriminalized recreational marijuana. While correlation does not equal causation – i.e., decriminalization is not the sole cause – marijuana, like alcohol, clearly impedes one’s ability to drive safely. It clouds judgement and impacts coordination, reaction time, fine motor skills and visual tracking.4 Significant performance impairments are usually observed for at least 1-2 hours following marijuana use, while residual effects have been reported lasting up to 24 hours.5 Motor vehicle crashes remain the leading cause of workplace deaths, and it is important that we continue to work to make roads safer, especially as a new threat looms.

Due to how THC is metabolized by the body and stored in fat, impairment is hard to correlate. As a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study6 indicates, THC levels do not seem to be reliable, accurate predictors of impairment. Instead, we depend on specially trained law enforcement officers, known as Drug Recognition Experts (DRE), to determine drug impairment. Most states do not have nearly enough DREs for their number of licensed drivers, and the NSC supports greater investment to train these officers.

Many factors impact how long marijuana impairment lasts, including if the person is a habitual user, the type and strength of marijuana consumed, how it is ingested, and other health conditions. Remember, there is no known safe level of marijuana use for safety-sensitive jobs, such as driving, operating heavy machinery or working from heights. Because impairment length is unknown, avoiding marijuana use entirely is safest.

Some employers in states where marijuana is either decriminalized or legal for recreational use say they have difficulty finding workers who can pass drug tests. This leads to 1 of 2 scenarios: (1) employers ease drug screening requirements, allowing potentially impaired workers into their worksites, thus increasing the possibility of safety incidents – an NSC-commissioned survey of 501 Human Resources professionals found that 81% of respondents lack a comprehensive drug-free workplace policy7; or, (2) employers maintain or increase drug screening criteria, driving up the cost of recruitment. NSC has seen innovative approaches to address opioid use disorders in the workplace that may provide guidance with cannabis, too. These include:

Marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, and federal employees are subject to “zero tolerance” policies. Non-government employees are subject to their employer’s workplace policies. Because of this, workplace policies should address marijuana impairment by revisiting drug testing policies. For companies in states where marijuana is decriminalized, there needs to be particular focus on safety-sensitive positions. To protect themselves and their employees, employers need to:

  • Recognize prescription drugs impact the bottom line
  • Enact strong company drug policies
  • Train supervisors and employees to spot the first signs of drug misuse
  • Treat substance abuse as a disease
  • And, leverage employee assistance programs to help employees return to work.

Any kind of impairment affects not just the safety of the individual user, but the safety of those around them. We all share roads and workplaces, therefore, we all have a responsibility to keep each other safe. As marijuana decriminalization grows, safety must remain the highest priority. To keep our workplaces and roads safe we must continue to educate the public using tools such as NSC’s Prescription Drug Employer Kit, and publications like Safety & Health Magazine. For more resources to help you stay safe at work click here.

A “Cannabis: It’s Complicated” symposium will be held June 25-26 at NSC headquarters in Itasca, IL. The event will feature some of the world’s leading experts on cannabis impairment and policy, and is an opportunity to learn more about what’s included in robust workplace policies needed to address cannabis-related use and products.

5. Ibid.