Once lumped in by anti-drug stalwarts with heroin, cocaine, hallucinogens and synthetic drugs, and still considered a Schedule I narcotic by the Drug Enforcement Administration, marijuana and its derivatives are now legal for medical use in more than 30 states and the District of Columbia. Several of those states also permit recreational consumption. Moreover, there are multiple bills advocating for either nationwide marijuana legalization or major cannabis-law reform floating around the House and Senate.

All of this points to the belief that the legalization of marijuana for both medical and recreational use is likely a matter of when rather than if. For HR teams and business leaders, this poses questions regarding how to handle the issue in the workplace. Regardless of your personal opinions, your organization’s culture and safety concerns, as well as individual circumstances, play into such considerations.

How should HR approach the legalization of marijuana?Employers must consider numerous factors when devising cannabis-related workplace guidelines.
Reconciling federal and state laws 

The fact that cannabis remains illegal at the federal level despite its legality in numerous states complicates things. If you’re a U.S. government contractor and prohibit employees’ marijuana use, for example, you may have the Drug-Free Workplace Act on your side. But if your state permits medical consumption and a job applicant or employee fails a drug test because of legal marijuana, you might fall afoul of laws requiring accommodation for medical users, as the Society for Human Resource Management explained. HR must also, up to a point, account for legitimate medical-marijuana users on staff in general and enact appropriate protections.

Matters of safety

Legal situations aside, companies have the right to invoke policies that forbid an employee from coming to work stoned or using cannabis on the job, just as they can with alcohol. And this is definitely a good practice if there are safety risks in the office or worksite that being under the influence could seriously exacerbate. Penalties for on-the-job marijuana use by machine operators, drivers, handlers of hazardous materials or dangerous equipment are all entirely reasonable. Be realistic about what constitutes safety concerns (forklift operation would count; working a tech-support shift is a stretch) and stay consistent with safety-related policy to avoid accusations of unfair application.

As we watch marijuana legalization continue to unfold, it is important for HR to remain as objective as possible regarding marijuana use – comply with all applicable laws, mitigate dangers to employees and company property and apply consistent policy.