Why Legalization of Recreational Cannabis Needs Workplace Safety Measures

ABC Maryland’s concern with recreational cannabis use has always been deeply rooted in the safety of our skilled and valuable workforce. Maintaining safety on a constantly changing construction site is challenging enough. Infusing that same site with impaired workers would only make it significantly more difficult to achieve job site safety. ABC Maryland remains neutral on the legalization of recreational cannabis.

Construction industry impact

Once recreational cannabis is legalized for adults, employers in the construction industry will have to meet three simultaneous goals:

  1. Protect an individual worker’s right to use recreational cannabis within the parameters set by the state.
  2. Ensure the workplace is safe and healthful by identifying impaired workers and managing the situation like other workplace hazards.
  3. Provide a stable, reliable workforce—traditional drug testing would unnecessarily kick too many workers off the jobsite.

To achieve the three goals simultaneously, we must include a provision for employers to supplement their traditional drug testing programs with an impairment recognition, monitoring, or evaluation system. To assist employers in making good decisions with a degree of consistency, the Maryland legislature needs to consider technologies that have been developed to assess a person’s level of cognition and motor impairment. This also includes being able to take corrective action when an individual’s impairment will impact workplace safety.

Construction companies would also need a training program in place. Workplace Impairment Recognition Expert (WIRE) training. WIRE training is a slimmed-down version of the Drug Recognition Expert (DRE) training provided to police officers. This would be a 4-hour class that is similar to current DOT reasonable suspicion training.

No margin for error

The construction industry already faces an ongoing shortage of skilled labor, made worse by the pandemic. And if the industry is only allowed to use traditional drug-testing programs, we stand to lose a large percentage of our current workforce. This would be detrimental to the growth of not only the construction industry, but of Maryland. As construction dollars flow in from the bipartisan Infrastructure Act, Maryland needs to have a ready and reliable construction workforce to take on the work and build our future.

House Bill 837, introduced last week by Judiciary Chairman Luke Clippinger, does not address workplace safety related to recreational cannabis use. The press announcement says that the proposed legislation “addresses the most pressing criminal justice and public health issues facing legalization while simultaneously building the necessary foundation for social equity in the recreational cannabis industry”.

For the construction industry, substance use is a major workplace safety issue. Take these sobering statistics from the National Survey on Drug Use by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, and the National Safety Council:

  • Construction industry employees have nearly twice the rate of substance abuse as the national average. Around 15% of all construction workers in the United States have a substance abuse disorder compared to 8.6% of the general population of adults.
  • 11.5% of construction workers reported illicit drug use within the month prior to the survey.
  • 14.3% of construction workers were diagnosed with a substance use disorder in the past year, more than 1 ½ times the average of all full-time workers surveyed
  • 2.3% have a marijuana use disorder.
  • Construction workers also had the second-highest prevalence of marijuana use after those in service jobs (12.3 percent vs. 12.4 percent, compared with 7.5 percent in non-construction occupations), found a 2019 New York University study.

For construction, the hazard of recreational cannabis is clear: operating heavy equipment and working in a constantly changing environment is dangerous enough under ideal conditions when people are fully alert, have great depth perception, and are capable of executing good decisions. Substance use has always undercut that safety net.

The transportation industry and heavy manufacturing are in the same boat. Safety-sensitive positions need to be protected from the adverse effects of cannabis-caused impairment.

Let’s put workplace safety first

ABC Maryland strongly urges the Maryland legislature to amend the bill to include studying ways in which to identify impaired workers, like alcohol and other drugs, to ensure a safe job site. It’s also imperative that construction workers continued to be considered essential workers where safety is paramount, such as pilots, train operators, and air traffic controllers, where being high on the job is not allowed.

ABC Maryland strongly urges the Maryland legislature to craft a workable bill that includes technologies and testing to assess worker impairment caused by recreational cannabis use. We welcome the opportunity to provide our perspective, insight, and on-the-ground experience to help create legislation that safeguards the construction industry and its workers.