How will marijuana legalization affect the blue collar workforce?

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Capital News Service

LANSING — It’s been more than a year since voters approved the legalization of the recreational use of marijuana for adults.

But the blue collar workforce and its employers still have to work out how to deal with the new law and how it can affect drug policy, the ability to fill jobs and worker retention. 

“First and foremost, employers are required to maintain a safe work space,” said Delaney McKinley, the senior director of government affairs and membership for the Michigan Manufacturers Association. “That requires that these people are sharp, safe and sober.”

Manufacturing, the lumber industry, electrical work, mining and other blue collar industries often have higher injury or death rates than other fields. 

The Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration reported 35 work-related deaths in the state in 2019. It is not clear from the agency’s reports if any were drug- or alcohol-related.

Marijuana is often seen as a drug whose users are relegated to their basement with a bag of potato chips. 

However, weed has become a big part of many Americans’ daily routines – whether for recreation or medical use: 22% of American adults use marijuana, according to a survey by Yahoo! News and Marist College. Furthermore, 63% of those adults say they use it regularly.

What happens if workers are getting high at or before they come to work?

“The vast majority of employers have a zero tolerance policy,” McKinley said. 

Indiana passed legislation in 2018 that created “Pathways to Employment” to increase access to addiction treatment and to establish a framework for second-chance employment policies. 

It includes an optional employee payroll contribution to pay for addiction treatment and liability protection.

Andrew Berger, the senior vice president of the Indiana Manufacturers Association, said that Belden’s manufacturing plant in Richmond, Indiana, was the first company to talk with the organization about drug policies. 

Dr. Ken Rosenman, the chief of Michigan State University’s division of occupational environmental medicine, says federally regulated jobs won’t be able to change policy because national law still prohibits marijuana. 

But Michigan’s employers have the right to choose how they handle drug testing.

“Individual employers can do that,” Rosenman said. “That’s not going to change with legislation”  in Michigan.

“Employers can make that determination. Here at MSU we don’t usually do drug tests.”

Rosenman said that when an employer hires for “safety sensitive positions,” it doesn’t matter who was smoking weed or if it’s recreational or medical marijuana. Employers won’t hire users.

Michigan now has recreational weed on sale in Ann Arbor and Detroit, with other cities, including Lansing and Flint, soon to follow. 

Legalization of recreational weed raises the question of whether employers should treat off-the-job use of marijuana the same as drinking off the clock. 

McKinley says it’s tough to determine whether a worker is under the influence of weed since there is no breathalyzer test for marijuana. 

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website says, “Heavy users of marijuana can have short-term problems with attention, memory  and learning, which can affect relationships and mood.”

In the construction, manufacturing and any blue collar industry – safety is the No. 1 concern for employers and labor unions. But with legalization, it could become harder to recruit even though safety is always the first and foremost priority, said Jonathan Byrd, the director of external affairs for the Michigan Laborers’ Union.

“I don’t want any of my mason tenders working under a bricklayer who is high,” Byrd said. “That’s how accidents happen.”

“If you’re on a jackhammer for 10 hours a day, your body gets beat up,” said Byrd. “How do you handle that pain? That’s the Catch-22, man.”

“It’s difficult recruiting,” Byrd said. Employer drug policies “shouldn’t prohibit good workers who want to participate in the industry.”

One attorney who represents clients involved in the marijuana industry said he believes that eventually the drug will be treated like alcohol.

“But I appreciate the fact that won’t happen overnight,” said Barton Morris of the Cannabis Legal Group in Royal Oak. 

“Being under the influence (of any substance) when driving or at work is unacceptable,” he said.

Morris says there are legitimate medical uses for marijuana, but that employers need to be sure they’re not held liable for accidents or injuries.

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