Legalization of marijuana and its impact on the workplace

As of April 2017, medical marijuana was legal in 29 U.S. states, the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico.

In December 2017, the following question was put on the Cook County election ballot: "Shall the state of Illinois legalize the cultivation, manufacture, distribution, testing, and sale of marijuana and marijuana products for recreational use by adults 21 and older subject to state regulation, taxation and local ordinance?"

The outcome of the recent election showed overwhelming support of marijuana legalization. The measure was used to gauge public opinion only. Therefore, recreational use of marijuana is not yet legal in Illinois.

The legalization of medical marijuana in Illinois, however, was passed in 2013, with the law going into effect in 2014.

With the growing support of cannabis use for both medical and recreational purposes, this may pose safety and productivity challenges for the workplace. Marijuana use in the workplace has been linked to an increase in occupational accidents and injuries due to short-term effects of the drug, such as memory issues, impaired sense of timing, decreased reaction time, altered thoughts and problem-solving capabilities, changes in sensory perception and impaired body movements.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, "Because marijuana impairs short-term memory and judgment and distorts perception, it can impair performance in school or at work and make it dangerous to drive."

Even though marijuana use may be growing in social acceptance, companies still need to adopt strong workplace substance abuse policies that are reviewed and updated on, at least, an annual basis to ensure accuracy, consistency and effectiveness of the policy.

State laws legalizing marijuana use do not completely protect employees against a solid workplace policy that prohibits use or being under the influence of marijuana while at work. How and when drug tests are conducted, use of drug testing to determine impairment and addressing positive tests may all be impacted by state laws, though.

Newer laws may provide even greater protection for employees with prescription use of medical marijuana. For example, in Illinois, state law prevents employers from discriminating against registered medical marijuana patients.

When asked about the impact of medical marijuana use on the workplace, Dr. Jeffrey Williamson-Link, system medical director, occupational and employee health, Edward-Elmhurst Health, responded: "I have not seen any specific increase in injuries, though Illinois just started with the medical marijuana law.

We still see marijuana as the number-one drug as being positive on drug screens. I think the biggest issues for employers is dealing with employees who now have a medical use card and how to deal with work and safety sensitive positions. Many HR departments are struggling with changing their policies to deal with these issues.

It is still an illegal drug from the federal perspective. I think many people are anxious to see data from legalized states like Oregon and Colorado to see its full impact on employee safety, as well as safety with drivers on the road."

Occupational health services support the employee and employer to ensure the workplace is safe and healthy, and to address health issues as they arise. Working closely with a trusted, competent occupational health provider is key to staying ahead of industrial trends that impact how businesses operate.

• Sharon E. Moore is system director, occupational and employee health at Edward-Elmhurst Health.

Sharon E. Moore
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