Workers appear to be safer in states that have legalized medical marijuana, according to a new study.
The research, scheduled to be published in the International Journal of Drug Policy in October, is the first of its kind to explore the relationship between medical cannabis laws and workplace fatalities.
Analyzing data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics from 1992 to 2015, a team of researchers found that workplace deaths declined by about 34 percent five years after a state legalized medical cannabis. The trend was most pronounced among workers between the ages of 25 and 44.
“The results provide evidence that legalizing medical marijuanaimproved workplace safety for workers aged 25–44.”
Because no previous studies have specifically investigated the relationship between legal cannabis and workplace fatalities, the researchers said the results could have gone either way.
Would legalizing cannabis put more workers at risk given the “short-term effects of marijuanause on psychomotor performance and cognition,” or might it lead to fewer workplace deaths in light of what we know about the use of cannabis as a substitute for alcohol and prescription drugs?
Theoretically, if people use marijuana as an alternative to alcohol or pharmaceuticals like opioid-based painkillers, the risk of impairment on the job could be lower, the researchers wrote.
And the data seems to back that up. Though the exact cause behind the trend warrants further research, one finding seems to substantiate the substitution theory: rates of workplace fatalities were lower in states that include pain as a qualifying condition for medical marijuana.
“Specifically, legalizing medical marijuana was associated with a 19.8 percent reduction in the expected number of workplace fatalities among workers aged 25–44 if pain was included as a qualifying condition; if pain was not included as a qualifying condition, the association between legalizing medical marijuana and workplace fatalities was not statistically significant.”
The researchers also observed that states where collective cultivation of cannabis is permitted experienced fewer workplace fatalities, indicating that ease of access may play a role in mitigating these incidents.
How this study could impact public policy
As more states have pushed forward with efforts to legalize cannabis, a conversation has been brewing about employment rights in legal jurisdictions. Courts in numerous states with medical marijuana laws on the books have affirmed employers’ right to terminate workers who test positive for marijuana metabolites, even if they’re registered patients. A handful of states, including Arizona and Illinois, have gone the opposite direction, however, granting employment protections to medical cannabis patients.
More recently, drug reform advocates have been pushing for anti-discrimination policies that would protect marijuana consumers in the workplace. A bill introduced by Rep. Charlie Crist (D-FL) last month would ensure that federal workers wouldn’t be penalized for using cannabisoff-the-clock in a legal state, for example.
Part of the logic behind blanket bans on marijuana use is that it is an impairing substance that could jeopardize worker safety. Evidence to support that claim is lacking, and this new study offers a fresh perspective on the debate.