Changing Laws Could Prompt New Workplace Rules on Pot

As more states legalize marijuana, HR needs to revisit workplace policies.

By Jen Schramm Feb 2, 2016
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HR Magazine February 2016Are HR professionals prepared to address the implications of legal pot? The numbers suggest that many are not. While nearly 90 percent of organizations have substance abuse policies in place in states where marijuana is legal, almost three-quarters have not modified their rules since the laws changed, according to the results of the Society for Human Resource Management’s Policies for Marijuana Use in the Workplace survey.

Attitudes toward occasional marijuana use appear to be relaxing across the country, especially among members of the Millennial generation. The views of this large and influential group are likely to affect many state reform laws and even workplace policies in coming years.

Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia have decriminalized medical marijuana. Four states and D.C. allow recreational use. As the move toward legalization grows, HR professionals will be expected to remain up-to-date on the laws and to adjust their policies in response as necessary. For example, they may need to clarify that, even if their organizations do business in states where the substance is legal, employee use remains prohibited.

But even a blanket ban might not be so clear-cut. Some states, including Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Minnesota, Nevada and New York, require accommodations for registered medical marijuana users. Still, only 14 percent of employers that operate in states where the drug is legal in some form have policies that permit medical use.

State laws could also affect how HR handles drug testing—both before and during employment. More than one-third of organizations in states where marijuana is legal for both medical and recreational use do not conduct pre-employment tests. But almost half require all job candidates to be assessed for the drug before hiring. Others conduct such screens only for candidates for select jobs—for safety-sensitive positions, for example, and when required by law.

About two-fifths of companies that operate where marijuana is legal have policies that allow employees to be screened for the drug at any time during employment, but only when circumstances warrant it, such as following a workplace accident or when there are reasonable suspicions that a worker is under the influence. About a quarter of organizations operating in these states subject all workers to marijuana testing throughout the course of their employment. But almost one-fifth of employers do not check anyone for use.

The consequences of violating substance abuse policies can include:

  • Termination for a first-time violation.
  • Required participation in a drug therapy or counseling program.
  • Written warnings.

For many HR professionals, there’s more to be done on this front to ensure employee safety and limit potential liability. Those are key elements to consider when deciding how best to revise your workplace policies on marijuana in light of a changing legal landscape.

Jen Schramm is manager of the Workforce Trends program at SHRM.

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