Legal Marijuana States Aren't That Safe for Pot-Smoking Employees, Survey Finds

A recent study in states where medical or recreational marijuana is legal shows that most employers haven't let the social shift in legalization soften their tolerance, or lack thereof, regarding employees who test positive for the substance.

Conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management, the survey polled 623 human resource professionals in nineteen states where medical marijuana is legal and four states and Washington D.C., where cannabis is legal for adult-use. The results showed that most employers are still following federal laws and guidelines despite operating in states that have laws allowing forms of marijuana use.

According to the study, 41 percent of respondents in states where medical and/or recreational marijuana are legal fired first-time offenders who tested positive for it, and 50 percent of respondents in states where only medical use is legal did the same; it also reported that 44 percent of survey participants in recreational states wouldn't hire pot-users.

The status of marijuana use in the world of employer/employee relationships has largely remained the same or become more strict since states have taken steps to legalize, the study says.

"Regardless of whether marijuana use is legal for any reason in their states, many organizations will continue to follow federal guidelines that prohibit its use among all employees," it reads.

Colorado's Supreme Court considered the matter last summer, when former DISH Network employee Brandon Coats challenged his termination from the company for testing positive for marijuana. The court ruled against Coats, a medical marijuana patient paralyzed in over 80 percent of his body, stating that under Colorado's lawful activities statute, the term "lawful" refers to activities that are legal only under both state and federal law, and employees who engage in activities permitted by state law but unlawful under federal law aren't protected.

Marijuana is one of the most widely used federally illegal substances in America, considered a gateway drug by opponents and a medical revelation by patient advocates.

“HR professionals in states where marijuana is legal for both recreational and medical use tended to have stricter policies in place than those where only medical marijuana is legal,” said Evren Esen, SHRM’s director of survey programs.

Another reason for the lack of refuge could be a company's operation in other parts of the country, as over 60 percent of participants also operated in other states, with 94 percent saying their substance use policies were the same in all locations. Businesses in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Washington and Washington D.C., which all legalized the use of recreational marijuana, have addressed the issue more frequently than medical-only states, the study says, with 29 percent of participants saying they modified their substance abuse policy since adult-use marijuana was legalized. The modifications were usually harsh, however, as 37 percent of respondents said their marijuana policies were now more restrictive, with only 12 percent saying the opposite.

It doesn't look like companies will be changing their rules, for better or worse, anytime soon, either. Almost 80 percent of participants said they had no plans to modify their substance abuse policies regarding marijuana use.

“It remains illegal under federal law," Esen said. "Substance use, disciplinary and hiring policies are all influenced by employers’ limited tolerance of marijuana use.”

As of September 2015, there were 114,767 registered medical marijuana patients in Colorado. A 2014 survey done by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reported that 13.6 percent of Colorado adults over the age of eighteen identify themselves as marijuana users.

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Thomas Mitchell has written about all things cannabis for Westword since 2014, covering sports, real estate and general news along the way for publications such as the Arizona Republic, Inman and Fox Sports. He's currently the cannabis editor for
Contact: Thomas Mitchell