Last updated: September 25, 2023
As the first state to legalize both medical and recreational marijuana, Colorado is often at the forefront of marijuana-related news and events. Recently, one Colorado contractor has very publicly expanded his business into the “green” industry, shifting his focus from constructing shipping warehouses and other routine buildings to crafting literal grow houses for the cultivation of marijuana.
But while this contractor has made news in a largely positive way, amid the ever-increasing societal support for marijuana legalization at the national level, the media often overlooks the tangible negative impact marijuana use can have on businesses and other employers. Indeed, marijuana use in the workplace can have serious, potentially even deadly consequences, and many employers in states where marijuana is legal are unsure how to deal with employees who show up to work in an impaired state.
So why do news stories about marijuana seem mostly positive?
Many of the stories published about Your Green Contractor’s shift to a much more literally “green” industry refers to the purpose of these newly-constructed greenhouses in an almost affectionate, sometimes bemused way. One article indicates that upon contractor Nathan Mendel’s first visit to a marijuana growing operation, he “had no experience with cannabis at all” and “thought you smoked the leaves.”
Today, Mendel’s website offers advice to other contractors hoping to enter this rapidly-expanding industry and even links to a white paper evaluating how to evaluate a building for a grow facility.
This kid-gloves journalistic treatment, as well as the open manner in which Mendel attempts to help fellow contractors gain a toehold in this construction niche, stands in stark contrast to marijuana’s consistent, unequivocal illegality under federal law, as well as decades of stories highlighting the dangers of marijuana use.
One reason for this significant shift in coverage tone lies in the similar shifts of public opinion. Although few Americans supported the legalization of medical marijuana a decade or two ago, with even fewer supporting measures to legalize marijuana on a recreational basis, today the tide has turned. With far fewer members of the public as vehemently opposed to marijuana legalization these days, journalists and news outlets find it much more palatable (and lucrative) to take a positive approach to these stories. Unfortunately, this shift in tone can hurt employers who rely on a drug-free workforce by making marijuana use seem harmless.
Safety issues caused by marijuana in the workplace
Despite its fairly new reputation as a harmless substance tantamount to caffeine or Tylenol, marijuana use in the workplace can have a notably detrimental effect on worker safety. Many studies of marijuana users have noted their decreased reaction times and slower movement, memory lapses, and other tangible changes in cognition and behavior.
Workers who use marijuana before or during their shift face a higher risk of accident, potentially injuring other employees as well as themselves. Productivity declines among regular marijuana users, and while its long-term effects on memory are still being studied, current studies show that marijuana makes even productive employees less effective over time.
Because of proven safety issues and the fact that marijuana is still federally illegal, employers are still entitled to enforce a drug-free workplace policy. This includes pre-employment, random, and post-accident drug testing of employees, as well as firing employees who fail any drug test. Even if an employee has been prescribed medical marijuana by a licensed physician, this doesn’t mean employers must permit the use of the drug; and because marijuana is still illegal under federal law, employees who partake in this drug are unequivocally breaking the law.
There is not yet a test to measure current marijuana intoxication in the same way a breathalyzer test can indicate whether someone is legally impaired by alcohol, and because marijuana’s active ingredient, THC, is stored in fat, marijuana users can test positive for some time after consuming this drug. However, rapid legalization of marijuana across a swath of states has spurred drug test manufacturers to develop a more accurate way to determine whether an employee has partaken within the last hour, the last week, or the last month. Currently, oral fluid, or mouth swab drug testing comes pretty close due to its relatively short detection window.