Opinion: Don’t let safety go to pot

Deborah A.P. Hersman
Hersman writes: "As marijuana decriminalization grows, states have more to consider than just revenue and pleasing constituents."

Marijuana decriminalization, for both medicinal and recreational purposes, has been a touchy subject for many Americans. Currently, 33 states have some form of marijuana decriminalization while 10 of those states and the District of Columbia have decriminalized marijuana for recreational use.

On Election Day, Michigan became the tenth. 

The possibility of increased state revenue has been enticing to many states that have decriminalized marijuana, and it may be an assumed benefit to Michiganders as well. However, there are other things for Michigan to consider, including safety implications both on and off the job and the associated costs.

One of the arguments for decriminalization is that marijuana is easy to access and many people already use it regularly. Some believe making marijuana illegal costs states money, but we must recognize that increased impairment on the road and on the job also has costs.

In Alaska, Massachusetts and Washington, states where marijuana has been decriminalized for recreational use, motor vehicle fatalities are up according to National Safety Council estimates. While decriminalization is not the sole cause, and correlation does not equal causation, it is clear that marijuana impairs judgement as well as coordination, visual tracking, reaction time and motor skills.

There is currently no easy way to measure marijuana impairment as there is for other substances like alcohol. Due to rapid changes in blood THC concentrations over time, peak levels of THC and peak levels of impairment may be challenging to correlate. As a NHTSA study indicates, driver THC levels do not seem to be reliable and accurate predictors of impairment. Instead, we depend on specially trained law enforcement officers, Drug Recognition Experts (DRE), to determine drug impairment. Currently, Michigan has 132 certified Drug Recognition Experts – not nearly enough for the more than 7 million licensed drivers in the state.

Some companies in states with recreational decriminalization report having a hard time finding workers who can pass a drug test – with reported fail rates as high as 80 percent. This puts employers in a tough situation and leads to one of two scenarios. Employers may ease drug screening requirements, allowing potentially impaired workers into their worksites. Impairment due to drugs (whether legal or illegal) increases the possibility of safety incidents driving up injuries and their associated costs. On the other hand, employers that maintain or increase their drug screening criteria, could drive up the cost of recruitment.

There is no known safe level of marijuana usage that would be acceptable for safety-sensitive jobs, such as driving, operating heavy machinery or working from heights. For other occupations, supervisors will need additional training to identify signs of impairment. As marijuana can be consumed in many forms, this can be difficult to identify.

Motor vehicle crashes remain the leading cause of workplace death, so workplace policies should address marijuana impairment. Revisiting drug testing policies and frequencies may be a good idea for companies in states where marijuana is decriminalized, particularly focusing on safety-sensitive positions.

As marijuana decriminalization grows, states have more to consider than just revenue and pleasing constituents. Safety concerns must be addressed and taken seriously to prevent needless injury and death.

Deborah A.P. Hersman is president and CEO of the National Safety Council and the former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.