As marijuana becomes mainstream, challenges remain for employers

In 1996, California became the first state to legalize the use of marijuana. A quarter-century later, the legal landscape and public perceptions of marijuana have shifted dramatically. Recreational adult use has been legalized in nearly 20 states, representing more than 40% of the US population, according to Census Bureau data.

While still illegal under federal law, what was previously considered a forbidden substance is now part of the mainstream. Many Americans are regular users of marijuana, and freely admit to being so. And, with the public’s backing, states and municipalities continue to legalize or decriminalize its use or possession.

But for employers, which must consider state and federal laws and balance employees’ rights against the imperative to maintain safe and drug-free workplaces, risks abound. Case law, legislation, and court rulings generally support employers’ right to keep marijuana out of the workplace, with some limits. The question of whether to use marijuana as a form of treatment in workers’ compensation claims, meanwhile, is still mired in confusion.

As public policy evolves, risk professionals must stay abreast of legal and political developments, review and update existing workplace policies, and carefully handle any workers’ compensation, employment practices liability, and other insurance claims in which marijuana use may play a role.

In managing marijuana in their workplaces, employers should consider taking several actions, including:

  • Updating employee policies on marijuana
  • Focusing on training
  • Considering technological solutions
  • Monitoring legal, regulatory, and industry shifts