Marijuana in the Workplace

WorkplaceIn 2011, about 9.8 million full-time U.S. workers age 18 and older either abused or were addicted to drugs or alcohol in the previous 12 months, according to the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, conducted by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. About 8.4 percent of adult full-time workers, and 9.8 percent of part-time workers (or 3.2 million employees) had a drug or alcohol problem within the last year, the survey found. Furthermore, a 2001 analysis of toxicology data indicated that alcohol or drugs were present in approximately 10-19% of all fatally injured workers in 1998 (Weber & Cox, 2001).

How Does Marijuana Affect Work Performance?

Marijuana affects every user differently and those effects can depend on:

If marijuana is used in the workplace it can affect the health and safety of the person taking it as well as those around them, as well as have an adverse effect on productivity.  Marijuana is known to have the following effects (Wadsworth EJ et al, 2006):

The effects of marijuana can last from two to six hours.  These side effects may make it hazardous to use marijuana at work, particularly if a person is operating heavy machinery or driving a vehicle. There is also a greater risk of an accident occurring due to the poor performance of even simple manual tasks. Regular marijuana users may start to exhibit signs of loss of energy and interest in their tasks, causing their performance to suffer. They may also find it difficult to learn new work skills.

Can Marijuana Be Found in Random Drug Testing?

While there is much debate about workplace drug testing, some organizations or companies have introduced such initiatives in an attempt to ensure workplace safety and improve worker productivity. Workplace drug testing can identify a marijuana user.

Once taken, marijuana is stored in the fatty tissues until it is slowly released back into the bloodstream and excreted from the body. Traces of marijuana can be found in urine for 1-5 days after occasional use and up to six weeks (or more) in people who use marijuana regularly (more than three times a week over a number of years). Marijuana can therefore be easily identified by drug testing procedures for a much longer time period compared to most other drugs.

Washington State Workplaces and the New Marijuana Law

Recreational use of marijuana was legalized in Washington State in 2012 (Initiative 502), however the new law included no specific protection in the workplace, even for after-hours use. Employers can still choose to test employees for marijuana and enforce a drug-free workplace.

Additionally, because marijuana remains illegal under federal law, any workplace that receives federal funding or is subject to federal regulations requiring the testing of safety-sensitive workers must continue to consider marijuana a prohibited substance (Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988).

Though the legalization of recreational use of marijuana may make enforcing workplace policies for after-hours use increasingly contentious, Washington State has ruled in favor of employers in the past when employees have been fired for legal use of medical marijuana. In 2011, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled that an employer can fire a worker who uses physician-authorized medical marijuana, even when the worker uses it only at home and exhibits no impairment at work. Because the state’s medical marijuana law did not spell out any provisions regarding workplace use, the Supreme Court found it allowed no recourse in employment disputes (Jane Roe v. TeleTech Customer Care Mgmt, LLC). Similar rulings have been made in other states with legalized medical marijuana, like Oregon and California (Martin J, 2011).

Washington state employers who intend to continue to enforce a prohibition on marijuana for their employees should confirm that their policies are made as clear as possible. Reminding employees and job applicants that marijuana remains a banned substance at your workplace can help address any confusion staff may have after the passage of I-502. Additionally, employers with written drug-free workplace policies may wish to review those policies to ensure that they clearly express the employer’s policy on marijuana use, rather than simply addressing drugs “that are illegal to obtain.”  Using the term “under the influence” may be clearer to employees than simply “impairment,” as well (Miller LD, 2013).  Employers should be prepared to answer questions from employees, applicants, and employee representatives, about policies related to marijuana and other drugs (including alcohol).

In Summary

For the following performance, legal and occupational health and safety reasons, the use of marijuana is not acceptable in the workplace:


This information adapted with permission from the National Cannabis Prevention and Information Centre in Australia.

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