Monitoring Marijuana Usage in the Workplace

Monitoring Marijuana Usage in the Workplace

Marijuana presents distinctive challenges for employers who are needing to provide a safe workplace. Its mixed composition and diverse means of use can make it difficult to create and enforce drug policies that also take into account conflicting regulations and legislation from the state and federal government.

Marijuana’s legal past and present

Medical marijuana was introduced to the U.S. in the mid-19th century, but a restrictive legal environment in the 1970s stunted research into its medical uses and prompted a withdrawal of support for its use in treating human disease. Now marijuana is a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act.

“This means that for all federal agencies or organizations marijuana use is unacceptable for any employee subject to drug testing,” explains Joel Blanchard, MD, medical director of Sanford Health Occupational Medicine.

Similarly, the Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988 states that all federal grantees must maintain a drug-free workplace. So as long as marijuana is illegal under federal law, employers who fire or refuse to hire employees for using marijuana are not in violation of any anti-discrimination statute.

However, despite its federal classification, eight states and the District of Columbia have legalized the use of recreational marijuana and 21 states have legalized the use of medical marijuana. As a result, some states limit employer action against workers who use marijuana according to state standards. In some of these cases, the decision to drug test must be job-related and conducted only when there is evidence of a safety or job related problem.

Assessing drug impairment

Any assessment of employee impairment must be incorporated into and clearly stated in an organization’s drug testing policy, but testing drug impairment is not a simple process and this is especially true when it’s related to marijuana.

Marijuana can contain over 400 chemical compounds and over 60 cannabinoids. It can be smoked, vaporized, ingested orally or absorbed through the skin by a patch. This all contributes to the rate of impairment.

“You can systematically measure the rise and the fall of alcohol, but you can’t do that with marijuana,” explains Dr. Blanchard.

Blood levels give a better assessment, but federally mandated drug testing is limited to non-invasive urine tests, which are not as accurate.

Establishing a marijuana drug policy

If an employer not tied to the federal government decides to allow some form of drug usage during or outside of the workplace, then they need to develop a clear policy to guide decisions on when marijuana use is allowed and how to evaluate impairment.

“The employer can decide who can use marijuana at work, but they’re still obliged to provide a safe workplace,” explains Dr. Blanchard.

Under Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) rules, employers have a federal mandate to address impaired workers who contribute to unsafe work environments.

“We know that people who use drugs or in fact use legal prescription medications like narcotics or sedatives are at a much higher rate of hurting themselves or coworkers or damage to the property of the company,” explains Dr. Blanchard.

At minimum, workplace policies for marijuana use should include which employees are covered by the policy, when the policy applies, an outline of the prohibited behavior, requirements for drug testing and consequences for policy violation.

Drug testing in the workplace isn’t about catching employees doing something wrong, ultimately the tests are about helping employees be better able to perform their work safely and providing them with substance abuse assistance so they can enjoy their lives.

For information about the Drug Testing Program within Sanford OccMed call (701) 323-5222.