Bottle of marijuana spills onto doctor's prescription pad thegoodphoto/Getty Images
LEGAL, BUT: Medical marijuana prescriptions, though legal in many states, create complications for farm employers.

Medical marijuana: A smoking farm labor issue

Workforce expert tackles how to manage employees wanting to use medical marijuana.

By Kristi Weierbach

Editor’s note: Maybe you never thought you’d live long enough to see an analysis like this in an ag media. Welcome to the brave new world. Management Consultant Kristi Weierbach tackles key employee management issues dealing with medical marijuana, now legal in many states. 

It wasn’t long ago that talking about cannabis in the workplace was a crazy idea. Yet, the medical and legal aspects of medical marijuana was the dominant topic of conversation at Pennsylvania’s recent Workers Compensation Conference.

Medical marijuana is legal in 29 states and the District of Columbia. Unfortunately, it may be several years of court decisions before we have a solid understanding of how employers should navigate this delicate topic. Based on gathered information, here are some insights to help you deal with the impact of employee use.

Why is medical marijuana prescribed?
Generally, it’s only prescribed to individuals suffering from a serious medical condition such as Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, cancer, post-traumatic stress disorder, Lou Gehrig’s disease, etc. It’s not a cure, but rather a method for alleviating pain and helping to improve quality of life.

How is it prescribed?
Cannabis prescriptions may vary from state to state. In general, an approved practitioner must confirm that a patient suffers from one of the approved serious medical conditions, then certify that medical marijuana can be of benefit. Upon approval, that person is issued a medical marijuana ID card.

How will you know if someone has been approved?
The only way is if he or she tells you. There’s no mandate that the prescription be reported to an employer.

Must your business accommodate an employee having a prescription?
No. At this time, companies don’t have to. But you also can’t discriminate against someone issued a medical marijuana ID card. The prescription is governed at the state level, and still isn’t legal at the federal level.

Should you adapt your pre-hire drug screen policy?
Yes. Determine what, if any, positions or roles in your company can be performed by one who may be authorized to use medical marijuana. Companies may take a firm footing and not hire anyone who tests positive, especially where employees operate heavy equipment or machinery.

You, the employer, should have a policy in place and consistently apply it. That way there’s no question whether one employee is being treated more favorably than another. If you allow use of medical marijuana, then it’s critical during pre-hire or random post-hire drug screening to require all who test positive for marijuana to show their medical marijuana ID cards.

Failure to do so is a good indicator that other non-medical forms of marijuana are used, which may still be illegal in your state. Currently, nine states and the District of Columbia have made medical and recreational use legal.

Are there any negative implications of allowing someone to work while being treated with medical marijuana?
Possibly. You need to examine each role in your business to determine if there’s an elevated risk of injury with use. And, seek guidance from your business insurance or workers' compensation insurance provider. Staying informed and diligent is critical for any business that wants to be future-ready.

Weierbach is the director of workforce advisory services for Stambaugh Ness, a management consult company headquartered at York, Pa.

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