Effects of marijuana law on the workplace outlined

DISCUSSION — Steubenville City Manager James Mavromatis and Police Chief Bill McCafferty were among those listening to points about Ohio’s medical marijuana law, which has been delayed from being implemented. The Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce held a seminar Thursday in the Towers for area employers to discuss issues in the workplace that will arise as the state’s system comes on line. The state was to allow licensed dispensaries to start dispensing medical marijuana on Sept. 8, but may not be doing so until close to the end of the year. -- Paul Giannamore

STEUBENVILLE — Ohio’s employers can choose to be a drug-free workplace and the new medical marijuana law doesn’t change that.

But, there will be impacts on employers who want to be drug free and impacts to consider for those who choose to allow employees to receive medical marijuana.

Allison Sharer of Working Partners presented a seminar, “Yes, No, Maybe? Medical Marijuana and Your Drug-Free Workplace” to members of the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce at the Towers Thursday morning. She said employers will receive pushback regardless of whether they choose to allow medical marijuana use in their work force or not.

Working Partners has decades of experience in developing drug-free workplace policies.

“We are in the midst of trying to change our relationship with our culture’s most widely used illicit drug,” she said.

She cautioned employers to recognize that they know their operations, but attorneys know the law.

“Employers are not required, but they are not prohibited from allowing lawful use of marijuana as medicine” unless a bigger authority has rules governing employees, such as the U.S. Department of Transportation or the FAA, she said. And, employers need to consider what to do in the case of a mixed work force, where some workers are federally prohibited and some are not.

She emphasized nothing in the state law requires employers to provide any accommodation for any employee with medical access, possession or distribution of medical marijuana. Nothing prohibits employers from establishing or maintaining a zero-tolerance, drug-free workplace program. The law says any employee an employer takes action against for a violation of the policy cannot sue over the medical marijuana issue. And, nothing in the law interferes with federal law or the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation policies.

Ohio was to start distribution of medical marijuana Sept. 8, but the system isn’t ready and may not be until the end of the year. She advised employers should develop time to devise policies.

Ohio’s law allows oral consumption as oil, tinctures, capsules or edibles that are not attractive to children; vaporization of oil or plant materials; topical lotions, creams and ointments; and transdermal patches. Plant materials are not to be smoked, and homegrown pot is not allowed.

She cautioned that patients have to register by providing proof of Ohio residence and pay $50 a year to receive an electronic card tied to their Ohio driver’s license or state ID. The law says they cannot operate a motor vehicle under the influence.

She said the patients are not receiving a prescription and medical marijuana is not a prescription drug.

Workers in the dispensaries will not be a “pharmacists,” but clerks who have passed a background check, not anyone who can give medical recommendations.

Anthony Mougianis, owner and chief executive of Apollo Pro Cleaning and Restoration and Team ATG, a commercial professional cleaning firm, has employees driving in company vans potentially from coast to coast. He said his company is a drug-free workplace and he plans to keep it that way.

He acknowledged something Sharer brought up: Some employers are choosing to stop testing for marijuana because of difficulty in finding employees who can pass pre-employment or random drug screening.

“It’s been a challenge, especially in pre-employment testing. I’d say three out of four fail,” he said. “It’s very real in our county, unfortunately. I want to be compassionate for people who would benefit from the use of medical marijuana, but my concern is I want it to be legit. I want documentation or proof that the individual is using it legitimately, that they’re not just smoking a joint and saying it helps my bum knee.”

He said staying drug-free is an issue not only of protecting the company from liability but to protect other employees who aren’t using drugs.

“We are still trying to grasp all of this and we want to do the best for all concerned,” Mougianis said, confirming that he plans for the future to remain a drug-free workplace. “The risk is high and at this point it will still be zero tolerance.”

Sharer pointed out that even in the case of prescription drugs that could be allowed under drug-free workplace policies, the policies have to be clear and workers need to recognize they have a responsibility of coming to work fit to do their job.

Employers face questions about what kind of marijuana the worker is using. Ohio will permit THC, the intoxicant, and CBD, which is not.

The medical marijuana that will be available in Ohio as concentrates can have as high a THC concentration as 70 percent. The plant form that will be made available can have a maximum THC content of 35 percent. By comparison, she said, street marijuana in the 1980s had a THC content of about 3 percent, and what’s being sold for personal use in Colorado is as high as 25 percent.

The questions will be about dosage, how much and how often.

Further, she said, the signs of impairment from marijuana are harder to spot than those for alcohol, though she said alcohol or any drug begins mental impairment long before physical signs are evident.

She said employers need to “get out of your gut and into your head.” She said a desire, for instance, to help a longtime employee who says he needs medical marijuana is not something to base company policy.

“Acknowledge the compassion side of this but know when you broadcast your final decision, there are strong feelings on both sides of this issue. It exists in your employee base, in their families, in your clients. It can be on both sides and you will get pushback either way,” she said. “Know the platform you’re going to stand on.”

She said three “game changers” on the medical marijuana front would be: If the federal government changes the status of marijuana through the Drug Enforcement Administration; if the medical profession can develop an objective standardized measurement of marijuana impairment like that for alcohol (there is no such marijuana test now); and the third would be if the Food and Drug Administration approved marijuana as a prescription drug.