By Erica E. Flores, Esq.
It took almost two years, but Massachusetts regulators have finally started to issue licenses to businesses looking to grow, manufacture, distribute, and sell recreational marijuana products in the Commonwealth.
The first license went to a cultivation facility in Milford back in June; since then, the Cannabis Control Commission has issued licenses to six other businesses, including provisional licenses for retail locations in Northampton and Easthampton.
Despite this progress, however, retailers cannot open their doors just yet — retail marijuana products must be tested for various contaminants before they can be sold, and the commission has yet to issue a license to a testing facility. But with the licensing process finally picking up steam, and public pressure on the commission to allow the voter-approved industry to take root, Western Massachusetts employers may be wondering how these changes will affect their workplace and what they can or should be doing to prepare.
Here’s what you need to know now:
Marijuana in the breakroom?
The recreational marijuana law specifically provides that it “shall not require an employer to permit or accommodate conduct otherwise allowed by [the law] in the workplace,” and further, that it “shall not affect the authority of employers to enact and enforce workplace policies restricting the consumption of marijuana by employees.”
This means that employers who pre-screen job applicants for marijuana, have drug-free workplace policies that prohibit employees from working under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and who conduct other lawful drug tests of employees may continue their current practices, and need not accommodate an employee’s use of marijuana for recreational purposes, even when they are off duty.
That being said, the availability of marijuana products for sale at retail locations (and, eventually, at so-called “cannabis cafes”) will likely drive an increase in marijuana use by adults across the state. This means that employers may see a rise in positive drug-test results by applicants and those who are subject to random testing. Employers may also see an uptick in employees arriving to work impaired and/or using marijuana products on the job.
To combat these potential problems, employers who have drug-free workplace policies might consider issuing reminder notices to employees making clear that their policies apply to marijuana just like they do to alcohol, which is also legal.
Employers may also want to adopt a reasonable-suspicion drug-testing program, if they do not have one already, and train their managers and human resources professionals about how to recognize the signs and symptoms of marijuana impairment and how to properly document their observations. Such evidence, in combination with a positive test result, can help an employer prove that its reasons for disciplining or terminating an employee were legitimate should the employee challenge that decision in a legal forum, particularly given the fact that currently available drug-testing methods do not measure current impairment; they can only detect that the drug is in an employee’s system.
Employers may also want to reconsider the scope of their pre-employment drug-testing programs. Such tests are legal in Massachusetts, but a 2016 decision out of the Mass. Superior Court suggests that employers who screen applicants for non-safety-sensitive positions run the risk of being sued for an invasion of privacy. Accordingly, employers can reduce their risk of a privacy claim (and possible liability) by eliminating marijuana from the testing panel for non-safety-sensitive positions or even doing away with drug screens for such positions altogether.
“… employers who have drug-free workplace policies might consider issuing reminder notices to employees making clear that their policies apply to marijuana just like they do to alcohol, which is also legal.”
Finally, employers should be prepared to address requests by prospective and current employees to tolerate the use of marijuana as a reasonable accommodation for a disability. Last year, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that Massachusetts employers have a legal obligation to accommodate a disabled employee’s off-site, off-duty use of medical marijuana, pursuant to a valid prescription, unless there is an “equally effective alternative” or the employer can demonstrate that the accommodation would be unduly burdensome.
The decision relied, in part, on the language of the medical marijuana law, which guarantees to registered users the continued benefit of all “rights and privileges.” But many disabled employees may choose to bypass the medical marijuana registration process when they are able to obtain the drug at a recreational shop, potentially at a lower cost, while avoiding the cost, time and potential stigma associated with becoming a registered medicinal user. Must these employees also be accommodated?
Technically, the SJC’s decision applies only to employees who have registered as part of the medical marijuana program. Additionally, both the legislature and the Cannabis Control Commission may seek to keep it that way. To be sure, it may not be such a good idea for doctors and other healthcare providers to be able to recommend marijuana as a treatment for a medical condition without going through the process that would enable them to actually prescribe the drug.
Further, it may be bad public policy to encourage disabled persons to self-medicate by using marijuana products that are designed for recreational use as medication. On the other hand, if an employee can demonstrate a disabling condition and the absence of an equally effective alternative to marijuana, allowing employers to deny the accommodation just because the employee obtained the drug at a recreational shop seems somewhat arbitrary.
These competing considerations are not likely to be resolved all at once, and certainly not right away. So employees who do not want to risk becoming the test case should give some thought to the pros and cons of accommodating such employees and devise a strategy that makes the most sense for their unique business.
When in doubt, employers should consider retaining employment counsel to help them navigate these difficult and ever-changing legal issues.
Erica E. Flores is an attorney at the firm Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C.; (413) 737-4753 or [email protected]