Effects of Marijuana Use in the Workplace
Cannabis was legalized in Colorado for recreational use in 2012 and since then, that’s snowballed into legality in 17 states. A further 17 also allow cannabis for “medical only” use. This shift in legality reflects the increasing popular opinion that cannabis should be legal. For most Americans, cannabis reflects a safe and relatively accessible way to relax and “get high”. That’s true – especially in comparison to the country’s favorite intoxicant, alcohol.
But, like alcohol, marijuana should never be used in the workplace. As an intoxicant, it can affect performance, increase the risk of accidents, and impact decision-making. An estimated 70% of Americans have tried cannabis at least once. But, as an intoxicating drug, if you feel the need to use at work or around machinery, you might want to evaluate your usage and your mental health.
Using Marijuana at Work
Most people who use cannabis do not do so at work. Those that do are making a deliberate choice to take an intoxicant in the workplace. However, most who do are also treating marijuana like cigarettes rather than like alcohol. The truth is, marijuana is somewhere in between – in light doses, its impacts on mental cognition and decision-making will be minimal. However, those effects are still there and still measurable.
In most studies, the effects of cannabis on cognition are not consistent. One person my see a different effect based on smoking slightly different strains. Impacts depend on the strain, uptake, tolerance, and even amount of sleep. Most people reliably experience increased heartrate, verbal and auditory recall delays (it takes longer to remember what you saw/heard), short-term memory, working memory, ability to count without an aid, focused selective attention, and vision-motor control. However, all of these are dose dependent and will be mild in a mild dose and strong in a strong (THC) dose. In addition, some strains have worse impacts on performance than others. In most cases, this is mapped to higher THC levels. However, this isn’t’ always the case. Studies in Jamaica have attempted to review which strains might be more suitable to use at work than others – but with little success.
Workplace Policies on Cannabis
Nearly every workplace maintains a zero-tolerance policy for cannabis usage. That’s in-line with Federal law. If you work around equipment or operate machinery, the Federal government would be no more forgiving of your employer for allowing cannabis usage than for allowing heroin, another Schedule I drug.
However changing norms do mean changing policies. Some states allow organizations to maintain independent cannabis regulations. Others force certain restrictions. For example, in most states, you may take disciplinary action (including firing the employee) against someone, even when they have a medical cannabis usage card and you have not caught them using on the job. Other states, like Arizona, have more worker protection laws in place. You cannot fire someone for cannabis usage unless you caught them using at work or if cannabis use associated with your workplace would hurt your business.
So, regulations aren’t strictly “No Tolerance”. However, in most states, they are. It’s always a good idea to review your specific state’s regulations as well as your specific employers’ regulations.
At the same time, cannabis has two primary legal uses:
Medical – Cannabis used to relieve pain, anxiety, or neurological condition. In this case, cannabis should be treated as a medication, typically with a low THC extract in which you are unlikely to get high.
Recreational – Cannabis used to get high for recreational purposes, in which case, you should not be using at work, as work is not a place of recreation.
If you use cannabis for medical purposes, discuss your options with your doctor and choose a high CBD strain or a CBD extract. If you’re using cannabis for recreational purposes and feel the need to use at work, you may want to assess why – including your mental health, reliance on cannabis, and whether you should seek out an alternative way to reduce stress at work.
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Marijuana on Driving and Operating Equipment
If you’re driving or operating machinery, it is never okay to use an intoxicating substance. That’s also true if you will still be high when getting into a vehicle for your commute to or from work. While 9.7% of cannabis users openly admit to driving after smoking, an estimated 32% of all road accidents involve cannabis. Cannabis usage before operating machinery is estimated to double your chances of being involved in an accident.
That’s understandable when you consider that even high energy strains reduce the time between when you see something and when you react to it. It also slows reflexes, reducing your ability to respond quickly to other stimuli, like sound. So, if someone runs in front of a forklift, you’re less able to respond quickly and stop. If something goes wrong, you’re also less able to respond. And, if you live in a busy area, lack of attention span may result in not noticing vehicles, slowing down to late at a stoplight, or other potentially dangerous behavior. While many people do drive without accidents after smoking cannabis, maybe people also drink and drive without accidents. That doesn’t mean it’s safe.
As a result, any workplace should and will have a zero-tolerance policy for cannabis usage around machinery. And, any workplace can and will have a zero-tolerance policy for driving while stoned during your commute to work.
Does Cannabis Have Long-Term Negative Effects?
Most studies suggest that cannabis is perfectly safe to use in small quantities. If you increase quantities, such as to daily use, cannabis begins to have long-term negative effects. The most notable and studied include increases in paranoia and anxiety. These increases are often small and build up over time and most people won’t likely notice them until they meet many of the qualifications for substance use disorder.
Side effects will also always depend on factors like:
- Total volume of use
- Frequency of use
- Original health of the user
- Genetic vulnerabilities to paranoia, schizophrenia, etc.
The more frequently you use, the more vulnerable you are to negative side effects. And, if you’re using to the point where you’re considering doing so at work, you may have already reached that tipping point.
Cannabis Use Disorder
Cannabis use disorder is estimated to effect about 8% of total cannabis users and primarily only daily users. Cannabis use disorder is characterized by seeking behavior, continuous usage of cannabis despite negative side effects, withdrawal symptoms, and negative mental health effects including paranoia. Someone who is dependent on cannabis will have little control over how and when they use the drug and is very likely to use it in potentially dangerous or socially undesirable situations. E.g., before driving or at work. In most cases, individuals with a substance use disorder will also use cannabis to the point where it maximizes negative effects, which can greatly affect productivity, work safety, and focus.
However, someone with a substance use disorder is protected under law, providing they seek out help. If you or a loved one has a substance use disorder, you shouldn’t lose your job for it if you get help and go to rehab. Substance use disorder is defined as a temporary disability under the Affordable Care Act (ACA/Obamacare). This means you qualify for disability leave, can get treatment, and cannot be discriminated against – providing you’re getting treatment. However, any specific contract or terms of work you have with your employer may override this. In this case, you’re better off taking FMLA leave, which provides up to 2 months of unpaid medical leave at your discretion, without the need to inform your employer of what for. You may need your doctor to sign a note explaining that you need time off for a personal medical reason.
Cannabis use is not necessarily bad or dangerous. However, most people agree that it has no place in at work. If you wouldn’t drink alcohol at work, you shouldn’t smoke cannabis at work. And, if you would drink alcohol at work, it should likely be a special occasion, or you might want to see a doctor. Cannabis can be harmless. It can also contribute to poor productivity, inability to concentrate, failure to react in a timely fashion, and lack of attention span.
If you do need help, there are plenty of resources you can look to, including cognitive behavioral therapy, counseling, and support to help you overcome the underlying problems behind substance use. That might involve stress management, emotional regulation, or simply learning new coping skills and behaviors. It might also involve extensive mental health treatment to help you improve how you feel every day.