Don’t Get Caught Between Pot and a Hard Place


Legalized marijuana is becoming increasingly prevalent, with 23 states and the District of Columbia having legalized marijuana for medical or recreational use. That means more than 150 million Americans now have legal access to marijuana. In Canada, the recently elected Justin Trudeau Liberal government has promised to introduce legislation paving the way for the federal legalization of marijuana in spring 2017.

Dr. Barry K. Logan, national director of forensic and toxicological services, NMS Labs; and Ron R. Flegel, director of the Division of Workplace Programs at the Centre for Substance Abuse Prevention, SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration), say that people’s views on marijuana are relaxing with the move toward widespread legalization of the drug.

In a recent National Safety Council webinar called Weed and Your Workforce: What You Need to Know, Logan told attendees that as public views on marijuana change, more people will be likely to experiment with it or use it on a regular basis. And given that marijuana is more potent today than ever— with its effects potentially lasting longer than eight hours when consumed in edible form such as brownies—there are significant workplace safety issues associated with its use.

Flegel noted that one direct work-related marijuana safety concern is the possibility of violent explosions during the making of butane hash oil in marijuana production facilities. Not only do such explosions endanger workers, but also firefighters, police and paramedics.

Two employees at a medical marijuana dispensary in Santa Fe, NM, suffered serious burns in an explosion that occurred when leaking butane met an ignition source. The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) investigated and cited 12 serious safety violations, including exposing workers to fire hazards and an explosive atmosphere, and using equipment that was not compatible with the type of refrigerant being used. The dispensary was issued proposed fines totaling $13,500.

Workplace safety risks associated with marijuana go far beyond the possibilities of marijuana product manufacturing hazards, of course. Whether smoked or eaten, marijuana induces feelings of euphoria, well-being and relaxation. While in that state, people’s abilities to concentrate and maintain attention and vigilance are impaired, as are their reaction times, thinking and problem-solving capabilities, ability to register, process and use information, and co-ordination.

SAMHSA statistics indicate that 9.8 percent of workers using medical marijuana had smoked it 15 times within a 30-day period.

The greatest risks occur among workers who are in safety-sensitive jobs while under the effects of marijuana. Examples could include driving a loaded tractor/trailer weighing 80,000 pounds (36,287 kilograms) down a busy freeway, operating a massive crane, or performing any task requiring sustained concentration and vigilance.

The safety risks associated with being high on marijuana while on the job are not confined to the worker who has consumed pot. Anyone in the vicinity, including co-workers or the public, could be injured or killed as a result of the worker’s actions. A US poll of 534 workers found that nearly 10 percent admitted to going to work after smoking marijuana.

“The best method of assessing a person’s impairment is by doing a physical examination of them and looking for evidence of impairment in their co-ordination, their patterns of speech and their level of awareness and engagement,” said Logan, adding that medical professionals or others with specialized training are best equipped to make such assessments.

Logan added that while drug testing is helpful in terms of deterring drug use in the workplace, “I think to be successful in disciplining somebody for being impaired that you would have to have some additional objective evidence or signs and symptoms of what that impairment is.”

Flegel noted that although marijuana is now legal in Washington State, employers who conduct pre-employment drug testing can and do refuse to hire people who test positive for it.

He said testing of urine for the presence of marijuana is not a reliable indicator of impairment at the time of testing, because marijuana lingers in the body for weeks. Blood and saliva testing are more reliable indicators of recent marijuana use.