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Marijuana in the Workplace: Employee Health and Safety


Attitudes towards marijuana have been shifting rapidly over the last two decades and legislative moves to decriminalize, and even legalize, show no signs of slowing down. For the first time, legislation and policy are beginning to align with social and cultural attitudes towards marijuana. This is due in large part to the emerging body of evidence that supports the medical uses and benefits of marijuana. Popular culture has been normalizing the use of marijuana for decades, but now that the science is catching up. Medicinal use of marijuana has been established in some countries and is on the rise in others. This growing body of evidence supports the medicinal use of marijuana for conditions ranging from cancer, HIV, multiple sclerosis through to chronic pain conditions, and PTSD. This is having a legitimizing effect amongst individuals and groups who support the use of marijuana and there is no longer a sense of secrecy or discretion around recreational use.

This trend to legalize marijuana for medicinal and recreational purposes alike will undoubtedly continue and it is becoming increasingly important for employers to be aware of these changing laws, but also to understand the impacts marijuana use can have on workplace productivity and employee health and safety.

Read on to find how these changing policies and attitudes towards marijuana may affect your workplace.

Laws on Marijuana 

The legal status of marijuana varies across the globe and employers should be aware of the relevant state and federal laws for their country.


In America, marijuana has been legalized for medicinal use in 34 states and recreational use has been legalized in 10 states. California is leading the way and the state has long been famous for its retail stores and its vast array of colorfully named strains with varying THC levels. More states will no doubt follow suit in this legalizing trend but it is important to remember that marijuana is still illegal at the federal level and case where there is a conflict between state and federal law, the U.S constitution dictates that the last word is given to federal law.


Canada legalized the medicinal use of marijuana in 2001 but it wasn’t until 2018 that recreational use was legalized nationwide. As of this year, online sales of marijuana have taken off across the country, with some complications arising.


Much like America, Australia’s laws on marijuana use and possession vary from state to state. Medicinal marijuana was made legal at the federal level in 2016, and New South Wales has begun the first of three medicinal trails into the benefits of marijuana for patients with certain conditions.

As far as recreational use, the ACT government passed a bill earlier this year that would legalize the possession of up to 150grams of marijuana and the cultivation of up to 4 plants per household with the new law coming into effect in 2020. In South Australia, the possession of small amounts of marijuana has been decriminalized, while in New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, and Tasmania the use and possession of marijuana is still a criminal offense.

New Zealand

As of 2018, New Zealand began prescribing medicinal marijuana to terminally ill patients in the last twelve months of life. Recreational use and possession of marijuana is currently still criminalized however, in November 2020 a referendum will be held which could lead to the legalization of recreational use.

United Kingdom

The UK also legalized medicinal marijuana in 2018, however recreational use is still a criminal offense and the likelihood of this changing soon is slim. On the other hand, many European countries have decriminalized possession of marijuana and tolerate small quantities for personal use.

It should come as no surprise that these legislative changes and shifting social attitudes toward marijuana will affect the workplace. The impacts will vary from industry to industry and employers should be looking closely at policy and procedures to identify how productivity and employee health and safety will be at risk.

The mental and physical side effect of marijuana use vary from person to person and it can be difficult to accurately ascertain an individual’s level of impairment. Saliva and urine tests can establish if an individual has recently used marijuana and these tests are usually part of pre-employment screenings. But these tests are retrospective and do not detect if an individual is intoxicated in real-time. They also fail to measure levels of impairment and this is partly because the effects of marijuana vary greatly from person to person. Yet, experts still agree that the physical and cognitive effects of marijuana can result in numerous hazards to health and safety in the workplace.

Physical Impairment

The physical side effects of marijuana range from disorientation and altered sensory perception through to dizziness, nausea, and vomiting. There is also a significant chance that individuals will have delayed reaction time to their physical surroundings.

Any combination of these side effects can greatly impact the health and safety of employees. This is particularly true of safety-sensitive positions which are common across many industries including but certainly not limited to mining, transport, construction, and hospitality. This covers any role in the workplace that requires the use of heavy machinery, the handling of hazardous materials, or specific roles where a duty of care is paramount.

The most alarming factor in cases of marijuana impairment is the belief held by individuals who use marijuana that their ability to perform tasks is not affected at all. This level of ignorance puts individuals and their co-workers at even greater risk.

Cognitive and Psychological Impairment

If the physical signs of impairment from marijuana use are hard to gauge, then the mental and cognitive side effects may be even more difficult. Even in less safety-sensitive positions, marijuana can still affect employees in ways that are detrimental to productivity and mental health and the effect can become more apparent over time.

Cognitive impairment from marijuana use can include short term memory loss, shortened attention span, inability to focus, as well as a decrease in the ability to analyze information and make rational decisions.

Psychologically speaking, Marijuana use can increase anxiety and paranoia in some individuals and if used frequently enough can exacerbate several other pre-existing mental health issues including depression. Ironically, while some individuals may use marijuana to reduce anxiety and depression, the same drug can have the opposite effect on others, exacerbating the very same conditions that others turn to marijuana to help reduce.

What can employers do to reduce risk, manage productivity, and maintain employee health and safety?

It comes down to employers being up to date on both federal and state laws concerning the legality of marijuana. Employers should also couple their understanding of legislation with an awareness of all the ways that marijuana use can cause physical and mental impairment in individual users and be on the lookout for signs and symptoms. Keeping a close eye on all employees for these kinds of signs is sometimes untenable so employers need to put in place certain structural and organization strategies.

Below are some suggestions employers can consider when approaching the issue of marijuana use.

Policy and Practices for Employers

Employers should consider a substance use policy that not only covers marijuana but also addresses impairment caused by other substances. Such policies give workplaces a space in which to take a clear stance on substance use and also introduce the concept of impairment to their employees. Employers should also tailor such policies to the specific needs of the workplace, especially in workplaces with safety-sensitive positions. In-depth job safety analysis will assist in ascertaining the specific risks related to marijuana-related impairment. In such cases, a firm zero-tolerance policy can be communicated.

In addition to policy improvements, one of the most effective ways to ensure employees are not using marijuana in ways that affect their productivity and performance is to implement stress preventative practices. If employees are turning to marijuana as a form of stress relief, this highlights an opportunity for employers to provide alternative solutions to work-related stress. Stress prevention practices can take many forms, from organizational to individual strategies. Clearly defined roles for employees and well-structured workloads for teams and individuals alike can go a long way in terms of reducing stress levels. Where possible, employers should also allow employees to participate in workplace quality improvements.

Whichever way employers choose to approach the issue, one thing should be clear; Ignoring the problem is never the solution. And in a world where marijuana is more acceptable and legally accessible, workplaces should be poised to tackle the issue head-on and ensure their employees are contributing productively to the workplace and are safe and healthy.

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