Safely working the weed dilemma

7 years ago

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — With voters legalizing recreational marijuana in a statewide referendum last year, Maine employers are now asking how they can keep a safe workplace without violating an employee’s right to use marijuana.

Employment attorney Peter Lowe of the Lewiston-based firm Brann and Isaacson advised a crowd of area employers at Northern Maine Community College on May 24 to be proactive and develop good drug policies.

“Their fear of course is mostly safety,” Lowe said of employers. “Second is liability. But [all employers] I speak to are concerned they can have an employee who is impaired and while they want to respect that person’s rights, they don’t want anyone to get hurt at work.”

A good number of businesses and organizations have a zero tolerance drug policy, Lowe said.

“Frankly the big issue is whether or not they can maintain that policy and that’s a question that is more complex than just a few words. It’s a very tricky issue,” he said.

Complicating matters is that some organizations such as the Aroostook County Action Program depend on federal funding and must obey federal law, under which marijuana remains an illegal substance.

“The Aroostook County Action Program’s policies are aligned with the laws and regulations set forth by the funding we receive,” said Alyssa Levesque, ACAP’s human resources manager. Since many of ACAP’s programs are funded with federal grants, the agency has to abide by the Drug-Free Workplace Act, which requires a drug-free workplace policy.

With ACAP programs also supporting substance abuse education and prevention programs, the organization’s “personnel policies are set to ensure our employees are leaders in the community, aimed at creating a safe and healthy environment for all,” said Levesque.

Even though the statewide referendum made recreational marijuana legal last year, state lawmakers are still developing rules to implement the law. Possessing and growing marijuana for recreational use now is legal, but buying or selling it is not until the new regulations are implemented.

Lowe said that dealing with marijuana issues in the workplace is at the top of the Legislature’s Marijuana Legalization Implementation Committee to-do list.

“The fundamental question is are you impaired?” Lowe said. “One challenge employers face is, if you’ve been drinking alcohol it’s much easier to assess and test whether you’re impaired. There’s a recognized limit or threshold. If a breathalyzer was conducted we’d know whether or not you were impaired. … Marijuana doesn’t lend itself to such an easy test.”

Lowe, who offers legal advice to employers throughout the state, said he hasn’t dealt with any claims concerning marijuana legalization in the workplace so far this year.

Levesque said she felt Lowe’s presentation at NMCC “was informative and provided some important guidelines as to the language that should be used when creating or revising a drug and alcohol policy for the workplace.”