Ready for Medical Marijuana in the Workplace?

by Helen Fitzgerald

Medical marijuana is a hot talking point in the news this Spring, as more countries around the world introduce legislation to legalize its usage.

In Canada, marijuana remains at the forefront of the news as it lights up the criminal code this month, with the country taking historic steps to legalize the drug for recreational use, as well as for medical use.

In France, the drug has now been declassified, meaning that whilst it’s usage isn’t legal, those who use it for medical purposes will not be prosecuted.

In the United States the status of marijuana, both for medical and recreational use, varied from state to state, with the use of marijuana for medical purposes having now been legalized in 29 states.  

For individuals with a valid prescription to use marijuana for medical reasons, generally for the purpose of pain relief, this poses a series of unique challenges, and in no place is this more true than in the workplace.

Random workplace drug testing is very commonplace in corporate America, and whilst the use of medical marijuana may well be legal, because companies set their own workplace drug use policies, choosing this form of pain relief could still well lose you your job.

So is there a place for medical marijuana in the workplace? And if you use medical marijuana, is there any national legislation to prevent your employer from letting you go? The answer isn’t straightforward.  

Challenging Differences from State to State  

In certain states, the rights of the medical marijuana user in the workplace are protected by law. In New Jersey, for example, two bills were introduced in 2016 that ensured that employers were unable to dismiss, restrict, or otherwise take any other kind of adverse employment action against an employee who tested positive for marijuana when subjected to a drug test, provided that employee had a registry identification cardholder, unless the employer could prove without doubt that their use of medical marijuana prevented the employee from adequately performing their job responsibilities.

These laws prevent employers from dismissing their employees as a result of their personal prejudice against marijuana use, either for medical usage or otherwise. This gives a certain level of protection to the medical marijuana using employee, but does not completely safeguard against unfair dismissal.  

In many other states though, North Dakota for example, employers don’t have to allow their employees to use medical marijuana in the workplace, and certainly many employers feel that the workplace is not the right environment for medical marijuana usage, which creates a stressful and uncertain environments for those individuals that rely on marijuana for pain relief.

Only individuals with debilitating medical conditions can apply for a license to use medical marijuana in North Dakota, which makes it even more difficult to balance the desire to work with the medical need to take pain relieving medication. In these states, users are advised to limit their medical marijuana usage to the hours outside of the workplace, and to seek other forms of pain relief to help them negotiate the working day.  

A Gateway to Workplace Drug Use  

The use of drugs in the workplace is a minefield, and one that is unfortunately very commonplace within American society. There is a huge difference between the use of medical marijuana and the use of illegal drugs within the workplace. When it is used as a capsule, tincture solution, or patch, marijuana does not produce the same high as recreational marijuana, meaning that it should not impair your reasoning or your ability to function efficiently within the workplace.

The side effects of recreational drugs, such as recreational marijuana, cocaine, and even alcohol, cannot always be accurately predicted which is why the use of these substances is almost universally banned from the workplace: because whilst under the influence of these substances mental functioning is almost always impaired in some way, and this could put not only your own health and safety, but also that of your colleagues, customers, and those around you in jeopardy.  

It is easy to see why certain employers apply this same logic to the use of medical marijuana in the workplace, and certainly it is easy to understand that the desire to avoid a costly lawsuit because one of your employees was under the influence of drugs often takes priority over the medical needs of that individual employee.  

What is needed, then, is education about medical marijuana and about its limited side effects, so that it can begin to be viewed in the same light as any other prescription pain reliever: whilst its classification may be the same legally, public attitudes simply haven’t changed as quickly.


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