Employers: Legalizing marijuana affects workplace safety, hires

Local business stakeholders say legalizing marijuana could further impact a workplace already marred by an inability to find workers who can pass a drug test.

As several issues promoting marijuana legalization in Ohio move forward in an effort to be placed on November’s ballot, a major concern is how employers would deal with workforce safety and drug testing.

“We don’t really support legalizing marijuana as an employer,” said Robert Toews, chief financial officer for Kaivac Inc., adding that having workers able to smoke cannabis, even off the job, could create confusion in the workplace.

Kaivac, a small business manufacturer in Hamilton that exports cleaning machines, spare parts, accessories, and cleaning chemicals to markets abroad, has had issues hiring workers who can pass a drug test, Toews said.

“As an employer, the burden is on us to create a safe workplace,” he said, adding that it’s not clear how drug tests will be able to assess whether someone is too under the influence of marijuana to work, as the drug stays in your system much longer than alcohol.

Tony Coder, assistant director of the nonprofit Drug Free Action Alliance in Columbus, said that should marijuana use be legalized in Ohio, the way drug tests are conducted will have to be rethought.

“I think we really need to advocate for stronger marijuana tests,” he said. “Alcohol is flushed out of your system, but marijuana is stored in the fat cells, and if you’re over a certain amount, you could be fired for impairment.”

“If you’re a heavy smoker, you may never test below the limit, even though you might not be impaired,” he continued, and added that better roadside tests for law enforcement would be needed as well. “We’ll need something immediate, so that not only can we make sure people aren’t impaired on the roads, but we can protect those who are not impaired but who have it stored and end up getting penalized.”

The major problems for states who have legalized marijuana use, Coder says, is to decide whether to follow the new state laws legalizing cannabis, or federal law, which still holds the ban. For employers who receive federal funding, their only recourse is to follow federal law.

“The Department of Transportation, for example, sent out a strongly worded letter that if you receive their funding, you are not permitted to allow (marijuana) use in your workforce,” he said.

Another issue employers will have to tackle is the possibility of lawsuits if employees feel they have been discriminated against, especially for medical marijuana users.

“The other piece is that if they don’t hire that person or the person is impaired at work, can the person come back and sue them for discrimination for their marijuana use,” he said, citing the example of a Colorado Dish Network employee, Brandon Coats, who was fired under the company’s “zero-tolerance” policy for drug use when he tested positive for medical marijuana.

“And now that case is wrapped up in the Colorado Supreme Court, and you wonder, how does that endanger work policy,” Coder said.

For “big-box” companies such as Walmart, the cost to settle a lawsuit like that — on average between $69,000 and $107,000 — is “nothing, but if you’re Pete’s Hardware down the street, that is a ton of money,” he said.

Kristy Duritsch, executive director for the Safety Council of Southwestern Ohio in Middletown, a nonprofit that has provided safety education in the schools, workplace and community for over 60 years, said the impact of legalized marijuana on workforce issues and employment is “very high on our radar,” adding that one major concern is the impact on medical costs.

“We already spend billions on the impact of tobacco and alcohol abuse, from drinking and falling down off the job, to suffering from liver abuse,” she said. “People abuse substances whether they’re legal or not, and if you legalize another one, it’s just going to be abused more.”

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, tobacco use costs the United States $133 billion per year in direct medical care for adults and more than $156 billion in lost productivity. Excessive alcohol consumption cost the country $223 billion per year in 2006, and illegal drug use costs $193 billion per year.

“Legalizing marijuana is only going to increase the number of people who cannot pass pre-employment and random drug tests. Workplaces are still going to demand a safe work environment for their employees,” she said. “Legalizing marijuana is only going to add to their turnover rates and the challenge to find dependable people who are employable.”

Melissa Vince, public relations manager for the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation, said the issue of marijuana legalization in the workplace was one that the bureau is beginning to review. They will be offering several classes related to the topic during the bureau’s Safety Congress and Expo from March 31 to April 2 in Columbus, including a presentation on the pros and cons of marijuana legalization in Colorado thus far, and one on drug trends and their impact on the workplace.

Rick Pierce, president and CEO of the Middletown Chamber of Commerce, said that area businesses and chambers are currently exploring the impact that possible legalization legislation would have on their businesses.

“As we have visited our member businesses and other companies in town, we know that they do find it a challenge now to hire those who can pass a drug test,” he said.

But whichever opinion an employer may have on the subject of legalization, Coder said that everyone has to be making a plan for how it will affect their workplace.

“Even though this may seem like a million miles away from what they’re concentrating on, this will absolutely impact them head on,” he said.

“Employers have to be concerned, and they have to revisit their workplace policy surrounding marijuana, no matter whether you have a drug free workforce or not,” he said. “We’re hearing from all around the state that there are not enough workers to pass the drug test, so how can we decrease the amount of drug use so that they can get a job?”

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