Legalized Cannabis Remains a Burning Topic for Employers

By Bethany Tomasian

Feb. 27, 2019

The legalization of cannabis isn’t an “if” but a “when” issue for employers in most states.

While its legalization creates confusion for many employers, there are conversations they can have to prepare ahead of time. The Midwest Business Group on Health convened a session Feb. 12 with human resources and medical professionals to discuss the legalization of medical cannabis and how employers should approach changing their drug-related policies.

Michigan was the latest state to legalize recreational cannabis, joining 33 other states and the District of Columbia that have legalized cannabis for recreational or medical use. Yet, even though many states have legalized both recreational and medical cannabis, federal law has not changed. Under the Controlled Substances Act, cannabis is still considered a Schedule I substance, meaning that it is defined legally as having no accepted medical use and having a high potential for abuse.

Peter Kadens, board director of cannabis cultivation and retail company Green Thumb Industries, was a featured speaker and discussed how employers should approach the legality of cannabis in the workplace.

“It is mission-critical to educate yourself on the laws and regulatory framework relative to medical cannabis in the states where you operate,” Kadens said. “Remember that each state has its nuanced set of laws, so if you employ people in multiple states, don’t assume that all laws are the same.”

Despite the federal ban, the Food and Drug Administration in November eased the restriction on the production of hemp products and products derived from cannabis with low concentrations of THC. The FDA also announced in June 2018 that a drug derived from cannabis, Epidolex, had been approved to treat seizures associated with two severe rare forms of epilepsy.

With the possibility of legalized cannabis under federal law in the coming years, workplace policy changes are also in question.

“It’s critical that you meet with key medical cannabis stakeholders in your communities to best understand how to create internal policies that govern your employees and that are congruent and consistent with the laws and regulations in the state,” Kadens noted. These community stakeholders include doctors, regulators, patients, and licensed operators.

While employers at the conference are trying to get ahead of the curve by adjusting their drug-related policies, they expressed their concerns over the involvement of cannabis in the workplace and the limitations of testing for THC impairment.

Dr. Jay Joshi, board-certified anesthesiologist and pain management specialist with the National Pain Centers, led a conversation on the scientific aspects of cannabis use with regards to testing. Analyzing THC levels in the bloodstream has been the most common method to judge an individual’s impairment.

Testing for impairment has been the topic of legal discourse when it comes to driving under the influence of cannabis. The Governors Highway Safety Association has reported that if a state doesn’t already have a cannabis-specific zero-tolerance policy, there are states that have per se limits of THC present in the blood. Colorado is the only state that has defined cannabis impairment by five active nanograms of THC present in the blood.

Kadens and Joshi clarified that because cannabis is fat-soluble and not water-soluble, there is no clear correlation between the amount of THC present in their bloodstream and the level of an individual’s impairment. With a lack of reliable testing, employers need to consider how cannabis legalization will affect the safety of their workplace.

One company involved with the advancement of THC testing is Buzzkill Labs. Based in Livermore, California, Buzzkill is developing a non-invasive method of testing that will reveal active-potency levels of THC for the previous six hours. Employers and professionals agreed that sophisticated tests such as these could be the future of workplace THC-testing.

Joshi emphasized that employers must realize that chronic pain patients are not drug addicts. An employee using medical cannabis is often looking for pain relief, he said, and not merely looking to get high.

Bethany Tomasian is an editorial associate for Workforce. Comment below or email

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