Column by Adria Berry, VP Government Affairs at the State Chamber of Oklahoma, published in NonDoc on April 24, 2018.
The question of whether Oklahoma should legalize medical marijuana will be on the ballot this June as State Question 788 (embedded at the end of this post). Regardless of where you stand on this issue, it’s crucial to understand all the details and ramifications of SQ 788 before voting.
While 30 states and the District of Columbia have legalized the use of marijuana in some form, this particular State Question does not put Oklahoma on an even playing field owing to its poorly worded and overly broad language. Allowing individuals to possess copious amount of marijuana to consume and grow has left many of us in the business community dazed and confused (see Section 1(A)).
By permitting anyone with any medical condition to receive a medical marijuana license allowing them to possess and grow a large amount of marijuana, we are opening up our state to a largely unregulated young industry. Some level of regulation and quality control is necessary when dealing with medicine — prescription or not. Why should medical marijuana be treated differently?
We do not want to ignore empirical data showing cannabis can be an effective medicationfor people with many illnesses. And, with the opioid crisis in our state, it’s worth noting there is evidence that cannabis may act as an alternative to opioids in some situations. It’s important, however, to carefully analyze all potential impacts of SQ 788 as it was written.
One thing to consider is how this State Question would affect Oklahoma employers. While the passage of SQ 788 may very well bring new revenue, business opportunities and jobs to Oklahoma, it could also create serious challenges and complications for all of Oklahoma’s 93,000 employers.
Every employer strives to protect its workers, reputation and customers from harm, but SQ 788 would impede a business’ ability to do that. In Section 6(B), the State Question states employers may not make hiring or termination decisions based on a person’s status as a medical marijuana license holder unless it would cause the employer to lose federal licensure. This would unilaterally change employment policies for businesses across the state.
SQ 788 goes on to say employers may discipline employees if they use or possess marijuana at work or during work hours. While that provides some level of comfort to employers, it’s far from enough. For example, if an employee is responsible for using heavy equipment, an employer would naturally want to ensure the employee hasn’t taken any substance before work that could impair their ability to use the equipment properly. Such usage could increase liability and potentially endanger personnel and customers. Employers are allowed to set boundaries regarding employees drinking alcohol or taking prescription painkillers on the job. Medical marijuana rules should be no different.
Further, the language in SQ 788 would prohibit an employer from disciplining an employee who fails a drug test if they hold a medical marijuana license. Businesses have a strong interest in protecting their workers and operations from dangerous accidents. Tying the hands of employers and telling them they cannot discipline an employee who uses a controlled substance or medication right before work is a recipe for disaster.
If cannabis products have the potential to benefit Oklahomans and bring new business opportunities to our state, the business community must carefully consider our response to SQ 788. Although we recognize the medicinal qualities and potential for economic growth in our state, Oklahoma’s employers shouldn’t be required to change their policies regarding drug testing and employee retention based on a sloppily drafted State Question.
There is a clear need to create a stable framework to regulate zoning, growing licenses, quality control and employer rights. None of these things are adequately addressed in the State Question. The answer may be to run proactive legislation this session that would address those concerns and would go into effect should SQ 788 pass in June. But, most likely, to satisfy legal requirements, legislation will need to be run immediately after the passage in June. Another special session, anyone?
Employers need some sort of guarantee from legislative leaders that there will be protections in place allowing them to keep their workplaces safe and drug free to avoid chronic problems.