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What You Need to Know About Cannabis in the Workplace

Depending on where you live, lighting a joint or consuming cannabis-infused food in the comfort of your own home may not get you into trouble. However, bringing and using marijuana in your place of work? That’s a different kind of beast altogether. Tucked underneath the question of whether or not this practice is appropriate or acceptable is a tangle of legal, safety, and individual rights issues that are often not easily reconciled by either the cannabis users or their employers.

In this short guide, we’ll fill you in on some of the key considerations surrounding the idea of marijuana use in the workplace. By bringing into light some of these issues, cannabis users and their employers will be in a better position to understand their rights and obligations as these pertain to the concept of cannabis in the workplace.

Marijuana’s legal status is continuously changing in many places

One of the most important things that cannabis users and their employers need to do is to review the legal status of cannabis in the jurisdiction where their business is located. In many locations around the world and in individual U.S. states, the legality of marijuana is in constant flux.

For instance, nine American states—namely Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington—now allow the general recreational use of marijuana, while Canada has recently joined Uruguay to become the only 2 countries in the world to have fully legalized marijuana, whether when it comes to its cultivation, sale, and medical and recreational use.

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State and federal laws must underpin any workplace marijuana use policy in the U.S.

State and national laws in the U.S. provide the legal framework for the development of employer-specific policies regarding marijuana use in the workplace. It is therefore recommended that employers review and revise their current drug policies to make certain that they meet the requirements of these laws.

In U.S. jurisdictions where marijuana remains illegal, employers are not legally required to accommodate any request from employees who desire to use the drug. However, in New York and other places where registered medical cannabis users are provided protection by state laws, employers and employees can engage in an “interactive process” that is aimed at establishing whether reasonable accommodation can be afforded any employee who requests permission to use the drug for medical purposes. 

There still exists a chasm between state and federal cannabis laws

Despite the legal status of cannabis in many states, however, it should be noted that some courts in the U.S. have ruled in favor of employers that have terminated employees for using marijuana. For instance, in the high-profile Coats v. Dish Network case of 2015, the Colorado Supreme Court upheld the decision of a lower court and ruled that the employer in question was well within its rights to terminate an employee who tested positive during a random drug test that they ordered.

While the employee, a man named Brandon Coats, argued that the satellite provider violated a Colorado state statute for terminating him due to his use of medical marijuana off the company’s premises and during nonworking hours—an activity that Coats claimed was lawful—the state supreme court disagreed. The judges noted that the state statute referred to by Coats did not define what are considered “lawful activities,” and as such, the statute’s protection did not extend to the specific marijuana use activity he engaged in, which is considered unlawful by federal law.

Campaigners who advocate for the revision of state drug policies said that the case highlighted the problematic divide that exists between state and federal laws when it comes to marijuana in the workplace.

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The legalization of marijuana should not excuse workplace impairment

Nevertheless, despite the grey areas that currently exist amid U.S. state and federal drug policies, there is at least one area in which employers and employees alike can agree on—that employers can set sensible expectations regarding marijuana use when it could cause impairment in the workplace.

While the onus is on the employer to provide reasonable accommodation to employees who are legally using medicinal cannabis, employers can still treat recreational use of marijuana like they do alcohol and other drugs. Employees should understand that they are not entitled to be impaired at work, as this can compromise their safety and wellbeing, as well as the safety and wellbeing of others. Moreover, impairment at work opens both the employee and the employer to potentially serious liability issues, especially when third-party entities are involved.

All these said, it can be argued that the legalization of cannabis does only little to alter the existing responsibilities of individuals and the companies they work for. While employers have a duty to accommodate cannabis users while ensuring productivity and safety at work, employees also have the obligation to use cannabis responsibly and to never exploit it as an excuse for coming to work impaired or for exhibiting unacceptable behavior.