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October 16, 2019
Medical group voices marijuana safety concerns

An occupational and environmental medical group urged members of Congress to keep workplace safety implications in mind when considering marijuana legalization. Congress should proceed cautiously and make public and worker safety its primary concern before legalizing marijuana, the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM) said in a statement.
Several states already have enacted laws allowing medical or recreational marijuana use, and several bills to decriminalize, reclassify, or legalize marijuana also have been introduced in Congress. The ACOEM laid out its position in a two-page policy statement, “Legalization of Marijuana—Implications for Workplace Safety.”

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The current patchwork of federal and state laws is detrimental to employees, employers, and the public, the ACOEM argued. At the federal level, marijuana is illegal to cultivate, distribute, possess, sell, or use. There are medical marijuana statutes in 34 states and the District of Columbia (D.C.). Ten states and D.C. so far also have approved it for recreational use, and Illinois becomes the 11th state to allow recreational use beginning next year.

Regardless of its legal status, marijuana interferes with safety performance in the workplace, the group said.

“This is particularly concerning for those individuals working in safety-sensitive positions where impairment can affect the health and safety of other workers, customers, the general public, or others.”

Recommended action

The ACOEM called for members of Congress considering marijuana legalization to include several steps in their efforts, including:

  • Reconciling federal and state laws surrounding marijuana use;
  • Assessing the impact of marijuana use on workplace safety and health and authorizing the study of the onset, duration, and extent of effects due to body composition of users and various methods of ingesting marijuana;
  • Defining the correlation between concentrations of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and impairment;
  • Allowing employers to have latitude to manage safety risks in their workplaces; and
  • Supporting efforts to develop a reliable method for employers to assess employees’ fitness for duty.

The group called for establishing a set time between marijuana use and the performance of safety-sensitive work until the science of impairment is better understood.

Unknowns about marijuana

The group argued gaps in current knowledge about the effects of marijuana should raise concerns. The ACOEM’s concerns include:

  • Evidence that marijuana can impair judgment, motor coordination, and reaction time and that there is a direct connection between THC levels in the bloodstream and impaired driving ability;
  • When individuals are impaired, they tend to underestimate the severity of their impairment;
  • States with medical or recreational marijuana laws have seen an increase in fatal automobile accidents; and
  • People in safety-sensitive positions should be held to a higher standard until a scientifically valid method of measuring impairment has been developed.

The ACOEM also suggested criteria for classifying positions as safety-sensitive. Recommended criteria would cover positions where impairment could:

  • Increase safety and health risks to employees, contract personnel, the public, or users themselves;
  • Adversely affect the environment through contamination of air, water, soil, flora, or fauna;
  • Jeopardize the community by damaging property or harming the public; or
  • Involve emergency response, the use of firearms, or call for judgment and decision-making that could have an immediate impact on the life and health of others.
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