As of January 1, 11 states and Washington, D.C., have legalized marijuana for recreational use. Another 23 states have approved marijuana use for medicinal purposes, leaving just 16 states where the drug is still considered illegal.
With the legal landscape on marijuana constantly changing — six states are trying to get some form of legalization on the ballot in 2020 — employers are faced with many challenges, ranging from regulatory issues to internal policy decisions. Further, the impact of marijuana on employee health and well-being is also a matter to consider.
Quite a Quandary
Jaime W. Vinck, group CEO of Sierra Tucson, notes the murkiness that employers must wade through.
“It’s a bit of a quandary,” Vinck said. With the federal government still classifying marijuana as a Schedule I drug and states opting to legalize or decriminalize it, Vinck said there is a “disconnect from the reality that we in the industry see.”
Legalization efforts have, in Vinck’s opinion, given the impression that “marijuana use is not that bad.”
“Marijuana is the most commonly used drug in the United States,” she said. “As a clinician, I believe in the harmful effects of long-term use.”
She notes that in the state of Arizona, where Sierra Tucson is based, the average age at which a person first tries marijuana is 12 years old. If that leads to continued use, that can produce negative results down the line.
“THC can definitely impact their developing brain, setting them up for psychosis and other mental illnesses,” Vinck said. Additionally, it can result in suspended emotional development, which can make it difficult for them to react appropriately when obstacles arise.
“When they experience sobriety later in life, they are unprepared emotionally,” she said. For example, if they are reprimanded at work, they might have a negative reaction instead of learning their lesson.
“We all have the responsibility to keep our workplaces safe.”
– Jaime W. Vinck, group CEO of Sierra Tucson
On top of potential mental health concerns, there’s also the risk that marijuana use could lead to other substance abuse.
“We know that when someone is a young adult, a teen, or even a tween, and they start using marijuana, it puts them in the drug culture,” Vinck said. “Then that table is set.”
And, consider the rising rate of depression, burnout and suicide. Depression is one of the top reasons why people start abusing various substances, Vinck points out, and burnout is not far behind.
This is where employers “have an opportunity to create the proper culture,” she said.
If employers properly address burnout within their organizations, “that will have a very positive effect on all of these issues,” she said. “Substance abuse is not good for anyone’s performance.”
“We all have the responsibility to keep our workplaces safe,” she added. This includes safety for those dealing with substance abuse and/or mental health issues and providing them with the support they need to improve their health.
A Medicinal Purpose
While Vinck does not support blanket legalization, she does support decriminalization of marijuana.
“They need help, they don’t need to spend time in prison for first-time offenses for a small amount,” she said.
Vinck also believes that marijuana use for medicinal purposes “has its place.” But even then, she urges caution.
“Using your prescription is not illegal,” she said. “Abusing your prescription is.”
And, medical marijuana certifications are not without their flaws. For instance, most certifying physicians do not screen for other substance abuse issues, let alone mental health issues.
“Let’s not give someone treated for psychosis two weeks ago a medical marijuana card,” she said.
Certified or not, medical marijuana is not an easier path for employers to navigate, she noted. Some jobs require special licensing or certification, like doctors. More often than not, licensing boards have sided with the federal government, deeming marijuana use illegal. Therefore, they can refuse to provide workers with the licenses or certifications they need to do their jobs if they are found to be under the influence.
So, it’s on employers to make sure that they have the proper policies in place. Is it clear that a drug test will be required for any safety incidents? Or when applying for a new job? Setting the boundaries is essential when attempting to deal with legalization issues. However, employers also need to be on guard, as such policies could lead to a discrimination suit, depending on the state in which they operate.
But whether policies have been set or not, or even whether legalization continues to grow, weed and the workplace will continue to be problematic for employers.
“As employers, there is, first of all, no consensus on ‘is it legal or is it illegal?’” Vinck said. “And, we have no consensus about what intoxicated means.”
Substances such as alcohol are a “no-brainer,” she said. It’s somewhat easy to tell and test whether someone has had too much to drink. But with marijuana, it’s gets more dicey, as THC can stay in the system for up to six weeks.
“A number of states just implemented legalization in 2020,” Vinck said. “So, it will be interesting to see how that plays out.”
About Sierra Tucson
Sierra Tucson has a 160-acre campus where experienced professionals provide integrative, evidence-based care to help achieve lasting recovery from addiction and mental illness.
Jaime W. Vinck is the center’s second female CEO. She came to the role after nearly 20 years as a clinician. Prior to joining the medical field, she worked in human resources.
About the Author
Stephanie N. Rotondo is managing editor of Workspan and #evolve magazines.