When it comes to cannabis legalization, safety needs to be part of the equation
© Getty Images

In September, the House postponed a vote on the MORE Act (H.R.3884), which would de-schedule cannabis. Now that this legislation has passed the House and moves onto the Senate, safety leaders must again warn lawmakers to exercise caution. While the MORE Act includes some provisions that would not cause workplace safety concern, such as the removal of punitive actions for drug violations, any de-scheduling of cannabis must be done with care. Steps toward legalization need to include an evaluation of the impact that legalized cannabis use will have on transportation and workplace safety. We have an obligation to protect workers and all who use our roadways, and cannabis use can create serious risks in both environments.

Data should always drive policy decisions. Cannabis is an impairing substance whose use has been on the rise, and a substance without clear and scientifically defined levels of impairment. Unfortunately, no cannabis test currently exists that correlates well with impairment level such as breath alcohol or blood alcohol. At this time we know little about cannabis impairment, the side effects or long-term health implications, as well as the implications for workplace safety. These questions can only be answered through rigorous research.

We know that cannabis has the ability to impair, and on-the-job impairment can have serious consequences, particularly for workers in safety-sensitive positions and all those around them. It is difficult to ascertain if a worker may be impaired, when they last used cannabis and whether they pose a risk to co-workers, customers or the general public. This is akin to the potential for “driving under the influence” for those operating commercial aircraft, trucks, trains, buses, cranes and forklifts. One troubling trend during the pandemic has been an increase in impaired driving, including from cannabis. Potential mishaps can also result from impairment of a worker on the floor of a chemical plant, at a construction site, warehouse or other operation with inherent risk.

ADVERTISEMENT

Even among states that have legalized marijuana for adult recreational use, there is a worrisome lack of consensus on what occupations are considered to be “safety-sensitive” positions and when employers may conduct drug testing or institute a zero-tolerance drug policy for those positions. To meet their legal and ethical responsibilities, employers should be allowed and encouraged to maintain a substance-free workplace, regardless of the legal status of cannabis.

We urge that any steps taken towards legalization likewise explore the impact on transportation and workplace safety and ensure there is an evidence-based standard for detecting cannabis-impairment in driving and other safety sensitive operations. When it comes to impairment, we owe it to our employees and our communities to address the public safety side of cannabis first and foremost.

Lorraine M. Martin is president and CEO of National Safety Council (NSC) and Beth A. Baker, MD, MPH, FACMT, FACOEM, is president of American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM).