How to communicate recreational cannabis policies to employees

Here are some evergreen approaches on how to best protect, educate and communicate to employees about recreational cannabis use.

As more states legalize recreational marijuana, it’s become a hot topic in the workplace. On the one hand, cannabis is still a schedule one drug and illegal on the federal level. On the other hand, President Biden recently pardoned thousands of people convicted of federal marijuana convictions in the steps toward rescheduling the substance.

Alongside these developments, access and data promoting the benefits of cannabis have brought this discussion to the top of every communicator’s inbox.

How do you deal with the biases around marijuana while ensuring a safe workplace for every class of job?

Ultimately, it is a case for education over policy.

In New York State, where it is now legal, there is a NYS Office of Cannabis Management and a campaign called Cannabis Conversation to create guardrails around what legalization means, its intended use and things to watch out for. New York State has also issued governance around what this means for employers. The governance says that “employers are not prohibited from disciplinary action against employees who are using cannabis during work hours or using employer property.”

Employers can prohibit use during work hours, but it gets tricky. Employers cannot use a drug test to confirm impairment, since drug tests only detect use, not impairment. Furthermore, you cannot terminate employment for having a noticeable odor of cannabis. You cannot prohibit use generally, only during the workday.

According to a 2021 survey, one-third of employees have observed cannabis use at work, and less than half of organizations have a written policy addressing cannabis.  Organizations are far more likely to have policies and communications around other controlled substances. The survey also found that most employees believe cannabis is safer than caffeine, but those who partake feel graver consequences for cannabis use over alcohol abuse..

Here are some recommendations for communicating your cannabis policies to employees.

Educate your workforce on how your company defines impairment.

A  recent Pew Trust Research study provided compelling evidence that safety must be at the forefront of any organization’s mind.  This study cited a sample provided by Quest Diagnostics showing that although workplace marijuana tests don’t measure impairment, they may nevertheless flag behavior that could predispose someone to accidents at work. It also showed that employees are more likely to fail marijuana tests after a workplace incident than when they’re applying for a job

Increased employee education is the most effective approach to maintaining a safe workplace.

Safety is critical — especially in manufacturing and R&D — and there will be some instances when impairment of any kind in the workplace will always be forbidden. Educate your workforce on what impairment means, how it manifests, and why it is important to be armed with the knowledge that we all have a responsibility to avoid impairment of any kind at work.

Have compassion for those who may feel dependent, and remind employees of your organization’s employee assistance program along with other resources, including return-to-work protocols for those who seek substance abuse programs.

Communicate trust, performance and impairment perceptions without judgment.

Every workplace has distinct trust perceptions, impact on performance perceptions, and impairment perceptions that must be understood — and sometimes overcome. The role of the employer should not become the same as the role of the parent of a teenager, and understanding these perceptions will go a long way to ensuring employees feel supported in a safe workplace.

As with any legalized recreational substance, you should reserve judgment of employees while reinforcing why your cannabis policies matter in the workplace. It’s crucial to reinforce that while legal, your policies only permit use during non-work hours, and that there may be consequences if it interferes with the ability to perform a role — as would be the case with any recreational controlled substance.

The use of marijuana is here to stay, and federal legalization may not be far behind with the MORE act recently passing in the House of Representatives.  . Although the bill faces an uphill battle in the Senate according to Politico, it’s not a matter of if, but when.

Until then, how we protect, educate and communicate to our workforce will be critical in navigating these tricky waters.

Aidan Willner is a senior account supervisor in employee communications at Cheer Partners.

Cat Colella-Graham is a leading communications consultant, the founding member of Chief and the founder of Cheer Partners.

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