Employers Face Dilemmas with Marijuana Usage in the Workplace


Kent Sharkey, President and CEO of Ulliance



Marijuana has been widely used in many cultures for generations. While in the 60s, mainstream America viewed marijuana as something only “outcasts” used, today our attitudes, opinions and even behaviors have shifted to the point of legalization with California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada bringing the number of states to seven (including District of Columbia) that has legalized recreational marijuana.

Since Michigan legalized the use of medical marijuana in 2008, more than 182,000 people have registered with the Michigan Marijuana Registry Program. That number doesn’t include the countless others who use marijuana for recreational purposes. While still illegal at the federal level, the marijuana industry is growing and attitudes toward tolerance are ever-changing. As a result, employers are increasingly faced with the dilemma of employees using medical, even recreational, marijuana before work or while on the job.

Much of society, including employers, still place judgment on those who use illicit mood-altering substances such as marijuana, even for medical reasons. They look poorly upon those who use cannabis or think they are unable to perform their job. Companies are caught between employees’ personal rights, state legislative approval and federal laws banning marijuana use.

Most employers have a strict policy against employees being in possession of or under the influence of illicit drugs and more specifically, marijuana, and don’t recognize a medical marijuana certificate. However, any prescribed medication that is potentially hazardous in the workplace needs to be brought forth to the employee’s supervisor or human resources department.

What happens if an employee has an accident at work? Employers may require a post-accident drug test to determine if drugs or alcohol were in the employees’ system at the time of the incident. Marijuana may stay in the system up to 30 days, even if an employee smokes or consumes it outside of work hours. Some people smoke weekly, even daily. Many people continue their marijuana use and it doesn’t affect their work, but others can become chemically dependent.

Marijuana usage in the workplace – medical or recreational – boils down to risk management. Employees have the right to work in a safe environment and employers have the right to maintain a drug-free workplace. The use of any mood-altering substance, including medical marijuana, is still considered risky behavior and can cause significant work/life consequences to employees who use them, their co-workers and their employers. The majority of Ulliance’s Michigan client employers have selected to follow the federal designation of marijuana use, and therefore maintain a zero tolerance drug policy.

Under a zero tolerance policy, employees may be tested for suspicion of drugs or cause. Cause is observable, identifiable symptoms of someone under the influence such as slurred speech, dilated pupils or staggered walk. The big question employers should ask themselves, “should we tolerate or terminate an employee if they have cannabis in their system while on the job?”

While most employers do not react to an employee’s positive drug test by determining WHY an employee has marijuana in their system, many offer an employee options to address the issue through a comprehensive employee assistance program (EAP). These programs provide assessment of the substance abuse issue; make treatment recommendations as needed, offer short-term counseling and perform random drug testing. The policy at some organizations, if an employee voluntarily reports a substance abuse problem to HR, is to refer the employee to the company’s EAP provider.

Even though Michigan residents did not vote on the legalization of recreational marijuana this past November; however, it may end up on a future ballot. Michigan employers will need to be ready. Employers need to establish the company’s position on marijuana in the workplace and, based on that philosophy, put the necessary policies and procedures, and corrective actions in place. No approach should allow for picking and choosing who the policies apply to. It is imperative to maintain fair and consistent employment practices within the workplace, and especially when it comes to marijuana use.

Once those are in place, maintain open communication with your staff and train all management on how to identify signs and symptoms of substance abuse. More importantly, don’t discriminate against your employees if they come forward with a substance abuse problem. And whatever you do, don’t ignore the issue until it “goes up in smoke.”

As the younger generations move up the ranks into leadership positions, employers’ attitudes will continue to evolve as society becomes more tolerant. However, a safe work environment must always be a top priority.