‘What Were They Smoking?’ States’ Legalizing of Marijuana Means Headaches for Employers
The federal government says there is no such thing as “medical” marijuana. Despite that, an increasing number of states have legalized the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, and a couple, so far, have okayed recreational use of marijuana for adults.
In the medical context, doctors often prescribe marijuana to manage chronic pain, and those patients must register in a confidential patient database. Registration triggers issuance of registry identification cards so recipients avoid criminal liability. Because many such patients are in the workforce, however, employers need to be aware of existing medical marijuana laws and pending legislation in each state where they employ workers.
The states of Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington currently legalize marijuana use for varying reasons. Washington and Colorado approved recreational marijuana use by adults, with regulations to monitor its possession, use and sale.
Expect more smoke. In 2013, Alabama, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, New Hampshire, Maryland, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and West Virginia introduced bills to make marijuana use lawful. On February 21 2013, for instance, Maryland Democratic Delegate Curt Anderson introduced a bill to legalize and tax marijuana use by “over 21” adults. The titles of several of these proposed bills contain words like “compassionate use” and “compassion and care” that reveal or suggest empathy for individuals with chronic pain who, with marijuana, want to function and work with less or no pain.
Some existing and pending state laws place specific restrictions on the management of employees who are registered medical marijuana users. In other states, however, regulations state that “their” laws do not deprive businesses from maintaining a drug-free workplace. Still other states have yet to address application of their marijuana laws to the workplace while their regulations remain embryonic.
In California, Colorado, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington, businesses need not currently accommodate employees who legally use marijuana for medicinal purposes. Washington’s statute, for example, says that employers may establish drug-free work policies, and nothing in it requires accommodating the medical use of marijuana. Others are not so clear, forcing employers to develop what sometimes must be “best guess” workplace policies to comply with “fog-filled” laws.
Marijuana use laws in Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, and Rhode Island expressly forbid businesses from refusing to hire applicants and from disciplining and otherwise adversely affecting the employment of registered medical marijuana card holders based solely on that status. Arizona and Delaware extend that by forbidding businesses from refusing to hire applicants or disciplining employees on the basis of drug tests that reveal marijuana components or metabolites. There are exceptions to these rules where, for example, the employees are “impaired” by marijuana while on an employer’s property and/or during work hours. But in those states, employed medical marijuana card holders are not “impaired” simply because marijuana components or metabolites are “in” their systems. Even worse, there currently are no bright-line tests for marijuana “intoxication” comparable to those for alcohol intoxication. That means employers in disciplining “impaired” employees will have to rely on observations of an employee’s behavior to prove impairment and avoid liability if the employees file a charge or sue.
With the changing landscape of state regulation, businesses cannot rely on federal classification of marijuana as a Schedule I substance (meaning it has no currently accepted medical use and has high potential for abuse). Instead, the federal-state “tug of war” means that every employer must be on “high alert” to ever-broadening marijuana use state laws and regulations.
Employers also need to educate law-makers as to the practicalities of employing marijuana users so any legislation passed can and does avoid unintended, harsh, and perhaps dangerous workplace consequences. Here are examples of opportunities for workplace input. In Colorado, there is a task force to propose regulations for its new use laws. Massachusetts health officials held three public “listening sessions” during February to help draft the regulations for the medical marijuana law passed by voters in November 2012.
Employers also should ensure that their human resources professionals and management teams are knowledgeable about the marijuana laws in each state where they employ workers, including updating their policies.
As more and more states relax the use of marijuana, perhaps, in part, because tax revenues from the sale of marijuana can help solve budget woes, business owners will also need pain management.
*Barbra Diallo also contributed to the content of this article.