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Marijuana’s Effects on Safety in the Workplace

160 million users globally—and growing. Marijuana continues its streak as the number-one federally defined illicit drug of choice among the American drug-using community. Considering the growing number of users and the changing landscape of related legislation, marijuana has become a legitimate concern for retail organizations across the country, especially when it comes to safety in the workplace.

The federal government continues to maintain its stance that marijuana is a dangerous drug and causes far more societal harm than the perceived personal health benefits. However, as of July 2016, twenty-five states and the District of Columbia have agreed that marijuana does contain therapeutic chemicals, and have passed laws legalizing marijuana for medicinal use. Colorado, Oregon, Alaska, and the state of Washington have passed laws legalizing marijuana for recreational use, with other states also considering this type of legislation.

There are strong opinions being deliberated from both sides of the discussion; and as this debate ensues and bills are proposed, enacted and rejected, America’s employers seem to be caught in the middle of a drawn out medical and political “he said, she said” with one of the oldest natural drugs known to man. So where does this leave us?

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Regardless of your political views, evidence supporting the benefits of recreational legalization does not seem to extend to the American workforce and the use and/or influence of marijuana in the workplace, where the safety and well-being of our employee base could be significantly compromised. The justifications proposed by pro-marijuana lobbyists would be considered feeble at best, presenting substantial risk and legitimate concerns in the workplace.

Medicine or Illicit Drug?

Although the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is not infallible, they are charged with the responsibility to “promote and protect” the health of U.S. citizens from a plethora of harmful substances. After countless years of clinical trials, there appears to be many compelling reasons that support the FDA’s refusal to approve the marijuana plant for medicinal purposes. The results of these trials are slanted and consistently show that potential health benefits received do not outweigh potential health risks associated with its consumption.

This is not to say that marijuana is void of therapeutic chemicals. Like other modern-day medicines that are extracted from plants, marijuana also possesses chemicals that have undeniable therapeutic properties.

These therapeutic chemicals, known as cannabinoids (can-nab-ih-noids), have long been synthesized and sold as FDA-approved drugs for a specific demographic of the U.S. population. Marinol, for example, is a synthetic form of marijuana that was approved by the FDA in 1985 for the treatment of nausea and vomiting experienced by cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. Another synthetic cannabinoid drug, Epidiolex, is currently undergoing clinical trials to treat childhood epilepsy. This drug has shown to effectively control seizures in children without getting them high, reducing the deleterious side effects.

Should marijuana be considered a medicine or an illicit drug? To answer this question, one has to consider the context in which the drug is taken. Is the person using to get high as the desired effect, or is the high merely a side effect of using marijuana for a legitimate medical condition? Depending on your state of residence, it could be both.

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Effects on the Brain and Body

Once inhaled, the intoxicating cannabinoids contained within the smoke of the marijuana leaf begin to take effect immediately. These chemicals work by attaching to receptors in the brain that influence pleasure, memory, thought, concentration, sensory and time perception, appetite, pain and coordination. The users’ heart rate speeds up, their muscles and airway become relaxed and the blood vessels in their eyes become engorged with blood and expand, causing the notorious bloodshot eyes.

The primary cannabinoid responsible for the marijuana high is delta 9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or simply THC. THC induces feelings of euphoria and relaxation, and can provide the user with an insatiable appetite. This doesn’t sound too bad, right? Let’s examine the other side of the debate.
Marijuana can impair the brain’s ability to form new memories, resulting in short-term memory problems and impaired learning and judgment. The changes in sensory perception will cause the user to experience a loss of balance and coordination, resulting in decreased alertness and delayed reaction times. The user may also have difficulty concentrating or focusing on simple tasks and experience a decreased ability to perform complex tasks.

Although the acute effects of marijuana subside after two to six hours, because marijuana remains in the users system for longer periods of time, the residual effects of marijuana can last for one to two weeks after the high. This means that a user may not be operating at 100 percent capacity for one to two weeks after their last hit.

Most importantly and contrary to popular belief, marijuana can be addictive. According to an annual national survey sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), one in nine marijuana users will become addicted in their lifetime, meaning they will continue to use it despite having repeat negative consequences associated with its use. This number jumps to one in six if the user begins smoking pot in their teens.

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Marijuana affects a similar reward pathway in the brain as those found in many other naturally occurring drugs like cocaine, opiates and alcohol. Frequent and long-term use can create physical and psychological dependence. Consequently, withdrawal symptoms such as irritability, mood swings, sleep disturbances, nausea, and anxiety have all been reported in long-term regular users who quit abruptly.

As a corporate loss prevention consultant and admissions counselor for a drug and alcohol rehab facility, I can testify to these statistics and witness the ugly side of marijuana use firsthand and on a weekly basis, as well as the potential impact of marijuana on safety in the workplace.

Effects on the Bottom Line and Safety in the Workplace

The reason a person smokes marijuana is typically the same reason another person uses alcohol, ecstasy, or heroin—they want to alter or change the way they feel, think and behave. This intentional impairment and the potential impact of marijuana in the workplace by the marijuana user directly leads to increased safety incidents and workers’ compensation claims. The 17 percent of users who become addicted may experience an increase in respiratory illnesses or develop psychiatric problems that require medical treatment, leading to healthcare premium increases. Frequent tardiness and unexcused absences will cause a decrease in overall employee morale dramatically affecting customer service.

Employee marijuana use is also nearly impossible for employers to control. Aside from the legal issues, there exists a two-fold separation regarding recreational marijuana use and recreational alcohol use. First, unlike alcohol, marijuana remains in the body for an extended period of time, therefore impairing the individual for an extended period of time. Second, whereas a Breathalyzer can reveal an alcohol user’s general level of impairment based on their blood alcohol content (BAC), modern day tests are not able to determine the level of impairment for a marijuana user based on drug levels in their body alone. This makes management’s ability to detect and regulate marijuana use terribly difficult. HR managers would be spinning their wheels developing policies that protect the company from lawsuits while protecting the workplace safety of their customers and employees.

As if this wasn’t enough, marijuana is still an illegal drug banned for distribution and use by the federal government. Any employer that receives federal funds or is subject to federal regulations must consider marijuana a prohibited substance for use at work—even in states like Colorado or Washington that have made it legal for medicinal and recreational use.

At the end of the day, fighting marijuana prohibition merely on principle or personal prejudice is not enough. An employee under the influence of pain pills for a legitimate medical condition may be taking the medicine as prescribed, but they are still not permitted to operate a vehicle while impaired, so they shouldn’t be permitted to operate a forklift while impaired. The same can be said for marijuana consumption.

If the state in which a person resides has legalized marijuana for recreational use and they choose to smoke on their own time— more power to them. If a person is prescribed a cannabinoid to effectively treat a medical condition, the benefits of the prescription likely outweigh the potential risks. However, a user should not expect my endorsement if they are a commercial driver sharing the road with me and my family, a surgeon operating on my child, or an attorney representing me in court.

We expect ourselves and our employees to be operating as close to 100 percent as possible when we show up for work. Indeed, laws will change and employers will adapt. But retail industry executives must agree that any level of intentional impairment, no matter how small, should not be tolerated in the American workplace. At least for now, marijuana in the workplace is no exception.

This article was first published in 2014 and updated July 26, 2016.

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