The Impact of Cannabis in the Workplace

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The legalization of cannabis has gained significant political and cultural traction over recent years. Despite being illegal on a federal level, many states have moved to legalize the substance or derivatives of it. Although conversations typically focus on legalization or lack thereof, the topic is quite nuanced and must consider numerous concepts including economics, criminal justice, health and well-being, community safety, and employment. Currently, 11 states have legalized adult use of cannabis, while 22 states have legalized medical cannabis use, and 14 have authorized the use of low-THC cannabis for therapeutic purposes. Kentucky belongs to the latter group.

In partnership with the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions and Greenwich Biosciences, the KHC held an employer roundtable on October 16 to discuss employer perspectives, challenges, needs, and current strategies around cannabis in the workplace. Employers joined in on this conversation to explore what legalization of cannabis may mean for Kentucky workplaces and how they can be best prepared to respond.

Mark Bolton, Senior Director of U.S Public Policy and Senior Legal Counsel at Greenwich Biosciences, set the stage for the discussion with a presentation on the science of cannabis and data behind its impact in the workplace.  Central to this presentation was the distinction between the different products of cannabis including recreational marijuana, medical marijuana, hemp, and cannabinoids. Cannabis is the plant that produces each of these products, while cannabinoids are the different compounds in cannabis such as CBD which is commonly used for therapeutic purposes and THC which is the compound that produces a “high”. Marijuana is the drug product of cannabis that can used for medical or recreational purposes and is often distinguished by state laws. Bolton highlighted these distinctions and advanced the discussion by also focusing on related concerns including employee readiness, side effects, and product contamination and labeling.

There are a few cannabis derived medicines that have been approved by the FDA, but other cannabis derived products are largely unregulated. The lack of regulation among cannabis derived products has allowed significant issues around contamination and labeling. Multiple studies have shown that contaminates such as metals, mold, bacteria, or dioxins are often found in cannabis products. Furthermore, many commercially available products such as CBD and hemp often over represent the amount of CBD in the product and underrepresent the amount of THC in the product. THC can lead to learning, memory, and decision impairment, cause confusion, delay reaction time, and ultimately create issues with productivity or safety.

After level setting, Gus Georgiadis, Area President of Arthur J. Gallagher & Co, facilitated a discussion among the employer participants. The conversation explored employer workplace policies, health insurance coverage, and legal considerations related to cannabis use. Employers’ primary concerns focused on the safety of the workplace, their employees, and the communities that they reside in. For companies that are public facing, reliant on transportation, or use equipment, the side effects of cannabis products have the potential to be dangerous. Other concerns included the adaptability of workplace drug testing. Since there is no test available to detect immediate impairment from cannabis, employers would find it difficult to discern whether an employee is impaired at the time that a test is administered. Related to this concern is legal use of CBD or hemp related products by employees who are unaware that the products contain detectable levels of THC, which could affect their results on a drug screening.

Aside from internal workplace issues, employers also highlighted the difficulty in determining medical coverage of cannabis related products. The distinction between federal and stage legalization poses challenges for employers who may be regulated by state and federal entities or have business locations in multiple states. Consensus from employers was the need for federal legalization to ultimately make cannabis use, whether medical or recreational, permissible.

Generally, the legalization and implications of cannabis use are incredibly nuanced. There are many lessons to be learned from states that are currently adapting to the legalization of cannabis products. Here in Kentucky, there is growing political and public support for doing so. In fact, the Kentucky House of Representatives voted to pass a medical cannabis bill, HB 136, earlier in 2020. The bill remains to be voted on by the Senate but will likely be readdressed in the upcoming legislative session. Considering these potential changes, employer collaboration and learning is important to adequately respond and adapt. This employer roundtable was a first step in that direction.

For more information on cannabis in the workplace, the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions has compiled resources including Action Brief: Cannabis Products on Formulary and Medical Uses of Cannabis-Derived Products.

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