Cannabis and the workplace

Balancing clearly defined usage parameters with employees’ legal rights is becoming trickier

I recently observed some tree service experts helping me to steward a 200-year-old white oak on my property. This involved bringing into a tight spot — occupied by my home, a fence and accompanying power lines — a huge crane and bucket loader. As I watched them perform dangerous work skillfully and carefully to remove and lower many hundreds of pounds of wood that was suspended over my house, the thought struck me that this work is not for stoners.

Given the proliferation of states moving toward liberalization of cannabis for both medical and recreational purposes, employers are faced with a new reality that many of their employees, if they aren’t already, may very well become users of cannabis and what that will mean for workplace safety and productivity.

Despite the federal designation of cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug — a substance with no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse — the states in their role of democracy laboratories are rapidly adopting legalization of pot and with it a predicament for employers in these states regarding an appropriate response.

To be clear, I get the reasons for the termination of the cannabis prohibition. The number of incarcerations, the amount of money spent dubiously on the war on drugs, lost employment and lives ruined resulting from over-punitive measures for use of a relatively inoffensive intoxicant has finally caught up with outmoded cannabis laws. Citizens are increasingly being given a choice, as they have been with alcohol and tobacco, to indulge free of legal encroachment. Seen from a libertarian perspective, this is progress.

However, there is a growing sentiment that with cannabis deregulation comes a belief that the drug must not be so bad after all. In other words, there is a declining perception of risk with marijuana. This sense itself carries a hazard. Alcohol and tobacco, despite their legal status, are still dangerous substances that can endanger lives and negatively impact places of work.

Cannabis usage as well involves potential jeopardy and its legalization should not imply its consumption is merely a docile activity. Despite expanded social acceptance of cannabis, its downside should not be marginalized.

In the context of employment, management is clearly justified in seeking to maintain a safe and productive work environment. Problems associated with cannabis in the workplace include increased accidents, injuries, absenteeism, worker compensation claims and staff turnover with a corresponding decrease in productivity according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Maintaining a sober workforce enhances professionalism and efficiency. An erosion of this standard should not result from greater cannabis availability.

Drug screenings have been around a long time, and the drug most often detected is cannabis, leading to non-hires and terminations. Questions arise, though, when employees are legally entitled to use cannabis either medically or for leisure.

If intoxication from alcohol is evident on the job, then dismissal becomes straightforward. Cannabis, on the other hand, can stay in the user’s system for up to two days and up to a month for chronic users. Should employees be disciplined for indulging legally during their off hours, even if residuals can be discovered long after the event via employers’ drug tests? Balancing clearly defined usage parameters in the workplace with employees’ legal rights is becoming trickier in this new age.

Nevertheless, employees who work in positions requiring focus, concentration and astuteness should feel obligated to self-monitor their cannabis usage free of external guidance. If you want to fly a plane, operate precision machinery, or lower 1800-pound tree limbs over a residence, then you are choosing to sustain an alert and highly functioning mind without the desire to get stoned.

The desire to master jobs of these sorts and to be counted on as a go-to expert in your field should hopefully provide enough incentive to self-regulate and maintain high standards of workplace conduct. Safety and effectiveness should be a shared concern among stakeholders across any workforce.

Bill Ryan, who writes about career, employment and economic topics from his home in North Sutton, can be reached at

Categories: Workplace Advice