marijuana plantThe acceptance of marijuana in the United States is truly spreading quickly. It really wasn’t that long ago that not one state accepted it medically let alone for small recreational use. Americans can now buy “medicinal” marijuana in a total of 29 states and the District of Columbia. Eight states have legalized marijuana for recreational use. It has begged the question about whether employers should be concerned about the potential safety hazards of marijuana use both on and off the job?

A survey just released by the Centers for Disease and Control Prevention (CDC) may help inform employers in “marijuana haven”, Colorado about marijuana use in their industry.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) analyzed data from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) — a phone survey about health habits in general — and published a breakdown of marijuana use by industry and job.

Over 10,000 workers were surveyed. 14.6 percent answered yes when asked, “Did you use marijuana or hashish in the last 30 days?” They were never asked whether they used marijuana while on the job. (Not that anyone is likely to be honest about that) The study showed that use was more common in males and among young people, with nearly 30 percent of those in the 18- to 25-year-old age group reporting at least one use in 30 days.


So Which Profession Smokes the Most Pot?

Those in accommodations and food services industry, were 30 percent of workers reported smoking pot at least once in the past month. Those in the job category “food preparation and serving” had the highest use at 32 percent of workers.


What Other Professions Have a High Number of Marijuana Users?

“Arts, design, entertainment, sports and media” came in second at 28 percent. Marijuana use was reported by 19 to 21 percent of workers in “production,” “life, physical, and social science,” “sales and related,” and “installation, maintenance, and repair.”


What About Those in High Risk Jobs?

While the study never reveals if anyone actually got high on the job, researchers did take a special look at industries in which workers are responsible for their own safety or the safety of others.

Those in jobs like construction, manufacturing, and agricultural industries all fell above the state average in percentage of workers reporting marijuana use. Interestingly, it was found that healthcare, utilities, or mining, oil, and gas all had less than 10 percent of their workers report marijuana use. Coincidentally, all three of these low marijuana use industries are also those known to perform drug testing on employees.


What is the Impact of Marijuana Use on Job Safety?

The survey raises as many questions as it answers. The most obvious question is, “How many of these individuals have routinely or ever been under the influence of marijuana on the job? And how frequently are they using?”

We really don’t have the answers. In the overall BRFSS population surveyed, employed and unemployed, just under half of the “within the month” marijuana users reported daily or near daily use. Of the remaining users, just about 25 percent of the population report using weekly, and the remaining 25 percent used only one to three times per month.

Since just over half of the total survey group was employed, it’s very hard to say how many of the daily users are actually in the workforce. Another drawback to the survey, adults who had been employed within the past year — even if they were not working at the time of the survey — were included. It’s possible, then, that the time they were using pot and the time they were working in the reported profession had no overlap. This does complicate the findings a little bit.

There’s very limited evidence that supports that marijuana use increases the risk of workplace injury. However, there is potential for problems if daily marijuana use is coupled with full-time work, particularly in safety-sensitive industries.


“The country is gradually becoming legalized with marijuana. We have highly anxious people,” said Dr. Scott Krakower, a doctor of osteopathic medicine and assistant unit chief of psychiatry at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, New York, with an interest in drug use and abuse. “I think that is going to lead to increased marijuana use in a lot of industries. I don’t know if we’re 100 percent prepared for that.”


Studies have shown that short term marijuana use is associated with slow reactions, low attention, poor coordination and impaired executive function, or higher-level thinking. At higher doses, depending on a person’s body mass index and tolerance level, it can cause paranoia, hallucinations, delusional behavior and becoming emotionally unresponsive. All of the above impact a one’s ability to function in the workplace.

Drug screens are unreliable for evaluating whether someone is impaired from marijuana use, as they can remain positive for up to 30 days after last use in people who use marijuana frequently. Public health officials and employers will benefit from more standardized reporting of circumstances related to marijuana use when it comes to safety events, from machinery accidents to car crashes.


Next Steps: Workplace Marijuana Use Policies

In those states where marijuana use is legal, many companies are currently left to their own judgment regarding workplace use.

Those with a policy that allows medicinal or recreational marijuana use during personal time will have difficulty interpreting a positive drug screen — was the employee high at work or does the result reflect his or her use last weekend?

Experts have suggested introducing standardized cognitive testing rather than the current antiquated drug screenings for those approved to use marijuana while employed, or for those with a suspected marijuana-related workplace safety incident.

For those allowing medical marijuana use among employees, Krakower suggested that “companies should come up with a specific template that goes to the doctor. To justify how long, for what, frequency of use and duration of use. Also, will there be regular check-ins?”


Marijuana Use is Frequently Linked to Mental Health Issues

Krakower suggests that employers dig further if they know that an employee is using marijuana. “Is there anxiety, is there ADHD, is there depression? If marijuana is there, what else are we missing? Are we meeting [our employees’] needs?”

On thing that should not be lost, is that federal law trumps state law, and it gives room to employers to actually prohibit employees from working under the influence of marijuana, and may discipline employees who violate the prohibition without violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Several states have laws, however, which prohibit discrimination based on its use. It cites evidence supporting the positive effects of marijuana on various health conditions. With legalization continuing around the country, we will likely see publicized court cases surrounding these issues.

Now that marijuana is legal, Krakower said, “It’s a whole new world.”