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Guest view: A frustrating lack of guidance on medical marijuana

More than 40 years ago I ran a rock radio station, Starview 92.7-FM in Central Pennsylvania. We were the first radio station to offer special midnight movies. These movies included a 1930s anti-drug movie called “Reefer Madness,” which warned of a decent into madness for those lured into trying marijuana. This propaganda film was quite campy and funny, especially in the culture of the late 1970s, where pot smoking was pervasive.

Today, we have a different version of reefer madness facing us — and it’s one that should be taken a bit more seriously. It stems from the unintended consequences of the legalization of medical marijuana in Pennsylvania, which occurred in August 2016. Marijuana and its active ingredients (in various forms) can help patients deal with symptoms of migraines, cancer, Parkinson’s, seizures and glaucoma, among a host of other diseases and illnesses. The positive results of taking medical marijuana are incredibly real for patients who struggle every day to live and work.

While the Pennsylvania Legislature voted to legalize medical marijuana, lawmakers did very little to provide guidance for businesses and schools that now struggle with how to deal with employees and students who have been prescribed medical marijuana. Most organizations have clear policies regarding the usage of any illegal substances, including marijuana. Often, it’s a zero-tolerance policy: If you test positive, you’re out.

Marijuana is illegal federally, even though more than 30 states have relaxed their laws to make medical (and, in some cases, recreational) marijuana legal. Yet, no CEO wants an employee operating heavy equipment or driving company vehicles with marijuana in their system. When there is a workplace accident of any kind, the people involved are immediately subject to a drug test. If drugs or alcohol are found, they are terminated.

Companies do not want to put themselves at risk of legal action, especially if someone is seriously injured.

The unintended consequence is that valuable employees being helped by medical marijuana will be treated differently at work due to the risk the company is being exposed to as the result of these now-legal prescriptions. You can see how this dilemma could be maddening for employers, with no guidance from those who enacted the law.

Same goes for our school districts. I recently spoke with a superintendent who explained that if a child needs a prescribed drug while at school, the school nurse will administer it — except for medical marijuana, since it is still a federal crime, regardless of the state law. A child would need to leave the school grounds to take the prescribed marijuana and could not return if there remains any marijuana in his or her system. The problem is that the active ingredient in marijuana can stay in a person’s body for several days or even weeks. Again, what a maddening situation.

Here’s the issue: Our state Legislature rightfully legalized medical marijuana, and it is a real blessing for those who battle the pain of illness or disease. Unfortunately, our lawmakers forgot that businesses and schools are bound by the federal law regulating drug use at the worksite and at school. These entities are being forced to establish policies for themselves without guidance from the Legislature. If the Legislature does not act to help companies and school districts understand how to deal with employees and students taking medical marijuana, then these organizations will be forced to take action that reflects current federal laws and potentially hurt good people.

Let’s stop this madness. From a business perspective, my advice for companies would be to only drug test individuals who show up visibly high or unable to perform their work. Of course, safety on the worksite is still paramount. Check with your attorney and insurance company about permitting individuals who have been prescribed medical marijuana a place in your company to be medicated safely. Don’t lose great employees struggling with medical issues.

In our schools, districts need to work out a policy and let parents know what it is well in advance. Pennsylvania businesses and school districts shouldn’t have to go it alone. The state Legislature needs to put an end to this reefer madness by offering solutions to the unintended consequences they created.

John Dame is a CEO coach, executive team consultant and leadership strategist based in Susquehanna Township, Dauphin County. Visit his website at www.johndame.com.

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