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Attorney: Pa. regulations lag on medical marijuana; businesses to take hit

Joe Napsha
vimarijuana030414
ASSOCIATED PRESS
In this Dec. 5, 2013, file photo, marijuana matures at the Medicine Man dispensary and grow operation in northeast Denver.

Legalizing medical marijuana in Pennsylvania will present more challenges for employers, a Pittsburgh attorney said Friday during an Excela Health program on substance abuse in the workplace.

“Pennsylvania is ground zero for medical marijuana,” Kathleen Koop Irwin, an attorney with Tucker Arensberg, told more than 150 human resources professionals and business managers at the Ramada Hotel and Conference Center in Hempfield. “We have a new class of protected employees under the Medical Marijuana Act, just like gender, race and religion.”

Gov. Tom Wolf in April signed a bill approving the use of medical marijuana for those with serious medical conditions. But employers, growers of marijuana and distributors of the product still await regulations to be formulated, Irwin said.

The program is not expected to be fully operational until 2018.

The state Department of Health, which will issue medical marijuana cards, has said that smoking marijuana in dry leaf form will be prohibited. The state does allow those with an approved medical marijuana card to obtain tetrahydrocannabinol, better known as THC, in a variety of forms, including oils or pills, Irwin said.

Pennsylvania’s law puts a burden on employers, she said.

Businesses won’t be able to deny a person a job if they test positive on a pre-employment drug screening if they have a medical marijuana card. They also will not be able to fire someone if they tested positive for the drug but have a card.

Employers don’t have to allow workers to take medical marijuana while on the job, but it remains unclear how they might be able to restrict usage prior to work, Irwin said.

Companies may not be able to fire employees on drug-use grounds if management is unable to articulate how marijuana use impacted job performance, she noted. Employees aren’t required to inform their company if they have a medical marijuana card and could sue their employer for lost wages, compensatory damages and attorney fees if they possess one and are terminated, Irwin said.

A national survey found that alcohol is the most-abused substance in the workplace, said Vanessa Sebetich, assistant director of marketing for Greenbriar Treatment Center, which has outpatient rehab facilities in Monroe‑ville and New Kensington.

National statistics show about 9.5 percent of employees have some sort of substance-abuse problem — whether it is alcohol or drugs, Sebetich said.

“Every single workplace is going to have an issue,” and those without any drug-testing procedures for prospective employees will have a higher percentage of employees with substance-abuse problems, she said.

At North Huntingdon, the municipality tests job candidates for drug use and randomly screens employees, including police officers and those with commercial driver’s licenses, said Michael Turley, the township’s assistant manager.

“We have a pretty robust program,” Turley said.

Workplaces that have stricter drug-testing programs are more likely to create a culture that is drug-free, said Jennifer Plummer, human resources manager for Loyalhanna Management Services LP, a business consulting firm in Hempfield.

Conducting what she called “reasonable-suspicion training” on drug abuse at least once a year shows employees the company has a commitment to maintaining a drug-free workplace, Plummer said. The rules need to be communicated with employees, she said.

The majority of workers with a substance-abuse disorder, however, will present problems at work, Sebetich said. That can include job performance, poor attendance or safety issues.

Those with problems are twice as likely than other employees to ask to leave work early and five times more likely to file a workman’s compensation claim, Plummer said.

Plummer and Sebetich said they are in favor of employee assistance programs, which encourage workers to seek voluntary assistance for their problem.

“The No. 1 fear of employees is that they will get fired if (they) come forward,” Sebetich said. “When employers give people a chance, they will save people’s lives.”

Joe Napsha is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-5252 or [email protected].

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