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Weed in the Workplace (Part 1)

Culture of impairment growing, costly habit for employers

NEW YORK — Illicit drugs are increasing in the workplace, and marijuana is leading the way.

What should employers do?

The answer has become more complicated with the growing number of states legalizing cannabis for medical and recreational use. Should drug tests even include marijuana anymore? If they do, and evidence of marijuana use pops up, should employees be penalized?

And further: Do employers have to accommodate for the medical use of marijuana under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act or state human rights laws?


Such questions are moving to the front burner as employers face a greater risk than ever from a growing culture of impairment that shows no signs of tapering off any time soon. Workforce drug positivity hit a 14-year high in 2018, according to a new analysis from Quest Diagnostics, a leading provider of drug test information.

For a growing number of individuals, cannabis has become the illicit drug of choice.

“Marijuana is the second most widely abused substance nationwide, after alcohol,” says Amy Ronshausen, executive director of Drug Free America Foundation Inc., St. Petersburg, Florida. “According to a survey by, more than one in five respondents said they use marijuana recreationally at work during work hours. Nearly 5% admitted to daily use, and more than 13% use it more than once a month.”

Why the sudden upsurge? It’s clearly due to the growing acceptability of marijuana by society in general.

“The legalization of marijuana on the state level has continued to grow since California first allowed the drug’s use for medical purposes in 1996,” says Joe Reilly, president of his own drug testing consulting firm in Melbourne, Florida. “Typically, states will first pass legislation legalizing medical marijuana. Later they allow its recreational use.”

Thirty-three states now have medical marijuana statutes. Ten states plus the District of Columbia allow both recreational and medical use of marijuana. And the numbers grow every year.

Legalization makes marijuana more socially acceptable.

“When a substance is legal and has massive amounts of marketing behind it, there are going to be more consumers,” says Ronshausen. “This is concerning because we are talking about a substance that is impairing people and has a significant impact on health and public safety.”


For employers, the downsides of marijuana are clear.

“Workplace drug abuse is costly in terms of lower productivity, higher tardiness and absenteeism, greater use of medical benefits, and increased incidents of pilferage and shrinkage,” says Dee Mason, president of Working Partners, a consulting firm based in Canal Winchester, Ohio.

And then there is the liability. As marijuana becomes more popular, employers face a greater risk of lawsuits when dealing inappropriately with individuals under the influence.

“It’s critically important for any business to protect employees and the public,” says Reilly. “At smaller companies especially, one accident can be devastating.”

Unfortunately, designing workplace policies that call for appropriate responses to marijuana use is easier said than done.

“Employers are struggling to adapt to changes in state marijuana legislation,” says Faye Caldwell, managing partner of Caldwell Everson PLLC, a Houston-based employment law firm specializing in workplace drug testing.

The biggest problem is that marijuana laws vary so widely by state.

“Each state has different requirements for employers, and many of the laws are quite vague,” she says.

Check back Tuesday for Part 2 about confusing laws and workable policies.