Now that all adults in Michigan can legally use marijuana, employers are weighing how the new law — and misunderstandings about it — could affect their workforces.
Proposal 1 to legalize recreational cannabis passed 56 percent to 44 percent on the November ballot and went into effect Dec. 6, making Michigan the only state in the Midwest where adults can legally consume marijuana at any time.
Still, the end of marijuana prohibition will not mean a free-for-all for citizens, according to Tami VandenBerg, board member of MI Legalize, an organization that helped bring the legalization initiative to voters.
The Michigan Regulation and Taxation of Marihuana Act allows individuals 21 years of age or older to possess, consume, transport or process limited amounts of marijuana or marijuana concentrate. Smoking marijuana remains illegal in all public places.
“People get a little too excited,” VandenBerg told MiBiz. “You’re not going to be arrested for it. That is a huge, huge win. That doesn’t mean you can smoke in your apartment if your landlord isn’t allowing that.”
Similarly to when the medical marijuana use was legalized in Michigan in 2008, the law also does not affect employer policies. Employers across the state and in all industries are still free to test their workforce for marijuana, she said. They can also hire or fire employees based on the results.
Most manufacturers contacted by MiBiz said they’re monitoring the situation, but plan to maintain their current drug policies. For now, they’re taking a wait-and-see approach, while keeping the status quo with their pre-employment drug screenings and relying more on supervisors to detect and report anyone who might be under the influence at work, executives said.
“We’re relying on our legal counsel to make sure that we have a clear understanding between what’s legal and what’s allowed,” Kelly Springer, CEO of Holland-based automotive supplier Metal Flow Corp., told MiBiz. “I think the distinction between those two is really important.”
Legally, private businesses have the right to choose their employees, as long as they follow federal and state discrimination laws. Springer said she is mainly concerned with maintaining a sober workforce for safety reasons.
“There’s some inherent risk on the safety front, just given what we do from a production perspective,” Springer said. “All of those things are strong considerations as we think of what we want in our workforce and the focus that we need them to have.”
According to VandenBerg, who also owns two small businesses in Grand Rapids, the law was designed so that private employers have the right to choose who they employ and to test employees as they see fit.
“Frankly, there are some jobs where you need to be totally sober,” VandenBerg said. “Even prescription medications (can be dangerous) if you’re driving heavy machinery or hi-los or you’re a pilot or driving trucks.”
To avoid any misunderstandings, VandenBerg recommends employers communicate clearly with employees as soon as possible. Even if there is no change to company policy, it’s important to remind employees of company drug policies to help curb problems that may arise from miscommunication or employees relying on their own judgments of impairment.
“What’s challenging is that different people are affected different ways by different drugs, legal or illegal,” VandenBerg said. “It is what it is. People need to be safe.”
Maggie McPhee, director of information services at The Employers’ Association, a Grand Rapids-based human resources nonprofit, suggests that employers make time to meet with all of their employees together “so that everybody hears the same message at the same time from the same person.”
Employers should also read through their drug policies sentence by sentence, McPhee said, to specifically insert the phrase “including marijuana” to policies that may refer to substances in broader terms like “legal” or “illegal.”
Tighter Labor Pool?
Patrick Greene, president of Grand Rapids-based Cascade Die Casting Group Inc., is among the manufacturers in Michigan who are wondering if the legalization of marijuana might constrain an already historically tight labor market.
“If marijuana is readily available and easily accessible, then people are going to be trying it or even experimenting with it,” said Greene, whose company tests applicants during the onboarding process. “This could impact our pool.”
VandenBerg thinks it’s very possible that adults, particularly Baby Boomers who have never used marijuana, might try the drug now that it is legal.
“You have all these folks that never wanted to try or use because of the legality, which makes absolute sense, that are thinking maybe they’ll try it,” she said.
A report released by the Federal Transit Administration last year shows signs that American workers in states with legalized marijuana are failing drug tests at an increasing rate. However, the rate of positive results varies widely, from 2.5 percent in Colorado to 43 percent in Nevada.
According to Greene, about 20 percent of applicants who take the onboarding drug test at Cascade Die Casting Group don’t pass for one reason or another.
“It’s a current issue, and we have a lot of internal debate trying to figure out how we do this,” he said. “We’re all over the board, but the biggest thing for us is going to be making sure that we have a safe environment for all of our employees.”
Some local manufacturers have ceased drug testing on the front end, according to Greene, but those decisions have been mostly limited to light-assembly manufacturing floors. With hot metal that reaches 1,200 degrees and equipment that “could crush you,” Cascade Die Casting is planning to remain cautious.
“It’s business as usual for now, but we’re going to also have to be flexible to continue to evolve as some of these things change,” he said.
Other states and industries have firsthand experience with the reality of a shrinking employment pool because of access to legal marijuana, according to VandenBerg.
“One example I use is that a lot of tech on the West Coast used to do a lot more drug testing. It got to the point where they couldn’t get the best talent,” she said. “But a job where you go in and you sit down all day and it’s creative, that’s a totally different ball game from the heavy machinery.”
Technology in Testing
Increased technology to test for marijuana impairment could have the biggest impact on daily safety in manufacturing plants.
Marijuana use is highly detectable and byproducts of the drug can linger in urine, hair and saliva for days or weeks after consumption. Heavy users or people with high body fat may even test positive for more than a month after ceasing use. However, valid detection is also time-consuming. Traditional tests can take days to produce a result.
The options and science for determining in-the-moment marijuana impairment remain hazy, according to sources.
“The only thing that would cause us to change (our policies) is if they do come up with something like the equivalent of a breathalyzer so we can actually tell if someone’s under the influence rather than just if it’s in their system,” Steve Moreland, president and owner of Grand Haven-based Automatic Spring Products Corp., told MiBiz during an executive roundtable last month.
A few Canadian and Californian companies are racing to answer the call. A breathalyzer that detects THC, the psychoactive component of marijuana, may be on the horizon for police use as early as this year. However many states, including Michigan, have not determined an agreed-upon level of THC impairment, and employers may have to wait much longer than police for the devices to be properly tested.
In the meantime, manufacturers in Canada and other states have found some success using impairment detection technology similar to video games. One example comes from Colorado-based Predictive Safety LLC. Originally designed to detect extreme fatigue, the company’s “AlertMeter” measures a person’s cognitive abilities with a 60-second test and can be used on a touchscreen tablet or a smartphone.
If employers are worried about their workforce testing positive for byproducts of marijuana, McPhee suggests increasing the use of agreements that give employees who fail an initial test a “last chance” or period of probation, usually a year, during which they can be randomly tested again. Through these internal agreements, both the employee and the employer acknowledge that the employee will be terminated in the case of a second positive test.
Greene is eager to find the best solution for his business and his employees.
“We just need to be able to navigate our way through this to still respect what people do on the weekend as long as it doesn’t impact their performance and their safety when they’re working during the week,” he said.