What Employers Should Consider About the Legalization of Marijuana

Hiba Haider

Both the US state and federal governments have always struggled to create and enforce fair policies around drug use. In the more recent past, this debate has materialized into legalization on the state level for one particular drug: marijuana. With more and more states legalizing cannabis use in some form or another, it's crucial for organizations to proactively educate themselves on drug laws and how they impact hiring policies.

Marijuana Legalization 

Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana use.

Cannabidiol (CBD) is a compound extracted from marijuana used for medical purposes that provides many of the same benefits without the side effects of THC. Alabama, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, and Wisconsin have all legalized the medical use of CBD.

Legalization vs. Decriminalization

While the "legalization" of marijuana indicates that they are no criminal penalties associated with the drug use, "decriminalization" has a more nuanced definition. Decriminalization typically means that the possession of small amounts of marijuana is a civil infraction, similar to a traffic ticket. The consequences of a first time possession usually include a small fine. The individual is not subject to prison time and will not acquire a criminal record.

Alaska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nevada, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont have decriminalized marijuana use, although most of these states overlap with the 23 that have legalized it in some form.

It's important to note that federal law still classifies marijuana as a controlled illegal substance.

The Nuances Of Marijuana Use And Testing For Employment

Despite the fact that marijuana is legal in Colorado, employers still have the right to fire an employee who tests positive for marijuana. Additionally, certain states including California, Oregon, and Washington have the right to implement zero-tolerance workplace drug policies regardless of the legality of marijuana.

On the flip side, some states including Arizona, Delaware, and Minnesota have prohibited employers from firing employees who test positive for marijuana if they hold a valid medical marijuana card. 

5 Best Practices For Developing A Workplace Marijuana Policy 

1. If your company offers contracting services for the federal government, your employees must abide by the Drug-Free Workplace Act, which has a zero-tolerance workplace drug use policy.

2. Companies in safety-regulated industries, such as transportation, must also abide by the Drug-Free Workplace Act.

3. You should consult legal counsel as you develop or amend your company's drug testing policy.

4. Set up training sessions to educate your employees about the policy so that every individual understands the expectations and the consequences.

5. Create a plan to effectively account for any future legal changes as well as plan to inform the changes throughout your company.

Clearly define your policy explaining what behavior is acceptable at the workplace, especially if they conflict with state and federal laws.

Sources: Governing.com, NORML, The Denver Post, Forbes, Forbes, The New York Times

Hiba Haider

Hiba Haider


Hiba is an expert product marketer with a background in inbound and digital marketing. She writes about recruiting, HR laws, and how to build a great culture and is a proud Babson alumna.

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