By Dr. Jan Ferri-Reed
Mention the subject of marijuana to the average American and they may well conjure images of hazy rock concerts, smoke-filled parties or “highlights” from their favorite Cheech and Chong film. But marijuana’s role in our society has been evolving. After gaining widespread popularity in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Cannabis Sativa has evolved from a recreational drug to a medicinal substance reputed to affect a number of illnesses and medical problems. The medicinal uses for marijuana have become so popular that it has lead to widespread decriminalization and the probable ultimate legalization of what we used to call “pot.”
Scientists have invested years of research into the medicinal aspects of cannabis, yielding such promising results that state legislators across the country are slowly beginning to reverse laws that criminalized marijuana use. Increasingly, the medical community is finding practical uses for marijuana to relieve pain, promote calm, ease physical suffering, and promote a general sense of well-being among users. Today, the common perception of marijuana puts it on par with alcohol recreationally and equal to analgesics medically.
The Trend Towards Marijuana Legalization
Even though marijuana is still illegal in the majority of states, that’s beginning to change. Many states have reversed their position and legalized marijuana for both medical and/or recreational uses. While this is good news for people suffering from certain medical conditions (as well as people who enjoy getting high), it’s bad news for employers that are going to have to seriously re-examine their policies and procedures regarding substance abuse on the job.
But the future seems clear: medical and recreational marijuana will eventually be legal in all 50 states. No one can say for sure how quickly these transitions are going to occur. But without question, all employers will have to implement new policies regarding the use of medical marijuana.
For many years marijuana has been classified as a schedule 1 illegal drug. According to the United States drug enforcement agency (DEA) Schedule 1 comprises “drugs” or other substances that have a high potential for abuse. Schedule 1 substances also have no commonly accepted use as a medical treatment in the US. This official “criminal” status is what held back efforts to decriminalize or legalize marijuana for public use over the past seven decades.
By comparison, “harder” drugs such as cocaine and morphine are classified as schedule 2 drugs by the US government. Supporters of marijuana legalization have been attempting for years to have the government declassify marijuana and remove the schedule 1 status, but until recently there’s been little progress.
Marijuana produces a variety of sensations among users. For most, the sensations are pleasant and calming. But there is a range of reactions experienced in varying degrees by marijuana users, including:
• Feelings of “zoning” in and out
• Skewed perceptions of time
• Bodily relaxation and easy movements
• Feelings of joy, euphoria, contentedness
• Carefree attitudes
• Sleepiness or drowsiness
• Increased mental energy
• Forgetfulness and mental confusion
• Increased sensory awareness
But the medicinal uses for marijuana have provided a powerful impetuous to reclassify the drug or declassify it altogether. More important, however, are the benefits that using marijuana can have for people suffering from a variety of conditions. Medical marijuana has been used to treat glaucoma, control epileptic seizures, decrease anxiety and fear, control Alzheimer’s disease, and improve numerous other ailments.
But unsubstantiated or anecdotal claims are easy to make. Scientific research into the effects of cannabis is still in the early stages so much information about the effects of mari¬juana is strictly speculation.
The Benefits of Using Marijuana
Researchers seem to be discovering new medical uses for marijuana every day, and the uses are seemingly numerous. Clinicians prescribe marijuana to address a range of ailments including cancer, glaucoma, and chronic pain. Medical marijuana:
• Can be used to treat glaucoma.
• May help reverse the carcinogenic effects of tobacco and improve lung health.
• Can help control epileptic seizures.
• Decrease the symptoms of a severe seizure disorder known as Dravet’s Syndrome.
• Stops cancer from spreading.
• Decreases anxiety.
• Slows the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
• Eases the pain of multiple sclerosis.
• Reduces muscle spasms.
• Lessens side effects from treating Hepatitis C and increases treatment effectiveness.
• Treats inflammatory bowel diseases.
• Relieves arthritis discomfort.
• Keeps you thin and helps your metabolism.
• Improves Lupus symptoms.
• Soothes tremors for people with Parkinson’s disease.
• Helps veterans suffering from PTSD.
• Protects the brain after a stroke.
• Protects the brain from concussions and trauma.
• Helps eliminate nightmares.
A ‘Hazy’ Reality for Employers
For employers adjusting to the new realities of medical marijuana it’s important to make sure your efforts to maintain a safe and productive workplace don’t lead you to violate workers’ basic rights. Those may differ from state to state but in general they include the right to privacy, the right to fair compensation and freedom from discrimination.
The rise of medical marijuana definitely complicates how employers interpret the laws of their states regarding marijuana use and employee privacy. The critical distinction here is whether we’re talking about marijuana that has been prescribed by a physician for health reasons or marijuana that was purchased privately for the employees’ recreational use.
Generally speaking it’s perfectly legal for employees in all 50 states to drink alcohol after working hours, but not acceptable for employees to show up to work drunk or to drink while working. The same standards should apply equally to medical marijuana, even in states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use.
Does that mean that employees can partake of medical marijuana before coming to work or during the working day?
In general, employers are not required to accommodate their employees’ use of medical marijuana any more than they would be required to accommodate an alcoholic’s need to drink while on the job.
If an employer has an existing policy of testing prospective employees for drug use before hiring, they will most likely continue to have that right. As an employer you are obligated to balance safety in your workplace with compliance under the law. Until the science of testing for the presence of marijuana makes clear distinctions about whether or not employees are under the influence for medical reasons, the current laws prevail. But be aware that the issue of medical marijuana usage versus recreational usage will remain hazy for some time.
Also bear in mind that any form of marijuana use — whether legal or illegal — could prove to be dangerous in many lines of work, such as operating heavy equipment, law enforcement, and medical practice among others. To effectively address marijuana use in the workforce employers should educate themselves about the laws in effect or pending in their state. And employers should always approach employee requests for accommodation in a compassionate, respectful manner. But be aware that specific laws governing the use of medical marijuana will differ from state to state. It’s important for you to understand your state’s requirements to determine where your rights end and the employees’ begin. Contact your attorney for more information about the laws in your state.
Jan is a seasoned consultant and President of KEYGroup®, a 35-year international speaking, training, coaching and assessment firm and co-author of Keeping the Millennials: Why Companies are Losing Billions in Turnover to This Generation and What To Do About It, and the author of Millennials 2.0: Empowering Generation Y. Jan’s work focuses on creating productive workplaces and retaining talent while increasing the bottom line. Publications and media that have called on Jan and KEYGroup® for advice and guidance include Industry Week, TIME, Diversity Executive, NPR and Forbes, to name a few.