In an era of legalized recreational marijuana and medicinal cannabis, employers have been increasingly concerned about use in the workplace, impairment, and hiring challenges associated with drug testing, according to Amanda O'Leary, planning and research associate for the Maine Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Standards.

Approximately 25 business people attended a breakfast forum on marijuana in the workplace hosted by Belfast Area Chamber of Commerce on Nov. 1 at the Wentworth Event Center. The event featured O'Leary and local marijuana business owner Paul McCarrier talking about drug testing and their take on marijuana use.

If an employer has a drug testing policy, someone who uses cannabis medicinally will always test positive. "That is the challenge we are finding," O'Leary said. She advised consulting an attorney if an employer is planning to test.

"I've seen a trend of employers removing marijuana from the pre-employment testing policy and only testing in a probable-cause situation, if they suspect someone is impaired," she said. "What I would recommend, besides talking to a knowledgeable lawyer, is to have policies in place. …It is just good business practice."

When employees know what is expected or prohibited up front, they are more inclined to follow those policies and employers will be less likely to scramble to figure out how to deal with something at the last minute.

"And this goes for any policies the employer has, not just for drug/alcohol use," O'Leary added.

As of May, the amended recreational law allows employers to have policies dealing with impairment in the workplace, she said. Employers can discipline an employee if impaired and can prohibit the use of marijuana and marijuana products in the workplace. Employers are also allowed to test applicants.

Previously the law prohibited employers from refusing to employ a person who used marijuana outside the employer’s property or tested positive for marijuana.

O'Leary said testing is not always the answer, and having a good conversation with an employee is key — knowing if they have the ability to do the job and that they have the ability to be safe.

"Get back to basics on that; can they perform and are they safe," O'Leary said.

Paul McCarrier operates 1 Mill, a clothing and gifts shop and a medical marijuana store at 1 Mill Lane in Belfast. The shop offers specialty garden products, cannabis paraphernalia, handmade goods such as T-shirts, hemp oils and other products, including medical marijuana.

McCarrier is finding more people wanting to use cannabis in lieu of pharmaceuticals. "People are looking to replace pharmaceuticals they are currently on, or have heard cannabis can provide some sort of relief and they don't want to go down that pharmaceutical path, especially with opioids."

There still is a big concern as to how that would be viewed in the workplace, he said.

He echoed an issue brought up by O'Leary: how a concerned employer may not distinguish between use on-the-job and off. As a business owner, McCarrier said he always looks at people with the perspective of "will they be effective, and will they be able to get the job done."

"In my experience, I do have an employee who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and smokes cannabis, and it does work," he said. "They are trimming plants — piecemeal work. It helps them stay focused on the task and increases efficiency using the correct dosage."

McCarrier said positive side effects of cannabis users include an increase in employee morale and much less conflict. "Cannabis is a part of our pharmacology, and when used responsibly, I think it can be an effective boost to workplace efficiency and productivity."

Some common ailments people use marijuana for include irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn's Disease, chronic pain, arthritis, fibromyalgia, and cancer, according to McCarrier.

O'Leary said, "Most responsible people who use marijuana, whether medicinally or recreationally, are not using at the workplace. Or, if they do, they know what they need to use to abate their pain, to continue their day.

"It's a small group that we're finding that are the blatant irresponsible users," she said. "Whether it's marijuana or something else, they are not good workers."

One business owner wondered how different methods of delivery affected employees. O'Leary said smoking or vaping was immediate, while edibles would take at least a half-hour to take effect. She also noted that overdosing with edibles was easy to do.

"Who can eat an eighth of a brownie?" she asked, which is the suggested dosage. "I can't."

After not achieving the desired effect, people will take more, and at some point they will get results they have never had before, and that is what is prompting them to go to the emergency room — "because they don't know what's happening," O'Leary said.

One business representative from Front Street Shipyard said safety was their number one concern and that they had a prescription drug policy in place already.

"It's not about judgment, it is strictly about safety." she said. "An impaired employee can be absolutely tragic.

"It doesn't have to be marijuana," she said. "It can be a hangover, or a prescription medication."

According to the DOL website, employers wanting to enact a drug testing program must have the policy reviewed and approved by the department before implementing.

Employers that do test for marijuana, or take disciplinary action for marijuana use, must comply with the Substance Abuse Testing Law, the Marijuana Legalization Act, the Maine Medical Use of Marijuana Act and the Maine Human Rights Act.

"That's a lot to think about," O'Leary said.

"If you do want to test, give me a call (623-7902) and I can walk you through it. The process is not as complex as you may think," she said.

For more information or to download applicant and employee testing policy templates from the the DOL website, visit https://www.maine.gov/labor/labor_laws/substance_abuse_testing/policy_types.html.