Legalizing and regulating the adult use of cannabis will decimate the workplace by undermining employee productivity and increasing on-the-job accidents. So claimed the California Chamber of Commerce last fall in its vocal opposition to Proposition 19, the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010. The chamber’s rhetoric proved persuasive with voters, who ultimately rejected the measure 53 to 47 percent. Yet a closer look at recently published workplace-safety data demonstrates the chamber’s claims to be much ado about nothing.


According to the annual data published by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of fatal workplace injuries nationwide has fallen steadily in recent years, declining from a modern high of 6,632 in 1994 (two years prior to the passage of Prop. 215, the nation’s first medical-cannabis legalization law, in California) to a modern low of 4,551 in 2009. More specifically, workplace accidents fell 20 percent just in the years 2007 to 2009 – years when both the medicinal use of marijuana and self-reported recreational use experienced significant upticks.


In both California and Colorado – two states that have experienced a surge in the ranks of certified medical-marijuana patients in recent years – workplace fatalities decreased in 2009, the report found. Ditto for Washington, another state with a decade-long experience of medical-cannabis legalization.


State-specific data from Oregon – which, like California and Colorado, has both medicalized and decriminalized pot – indicates a similar trend. Statistics compiled by the Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Affairs found that the rates of workplace illness and injury for 2009 were at “the lowest [levels] ever recorded.” In fact, ever since Oregon voters approved the legal use of medical cannabis, which went into effect in December 1998, the percentage of illnesses or injuries per 100 full-time workers has fallen from 7 percent to just over 4 percent.


So does this mean that the public’s increased use of cannabis is making the American workplace safer? Probably not. But at the very least, it debunks the pernicious myth that pot smokers – and medical-cannabis patients in particular – are in any way undermining workplace safety.


Nonetheless, courts in many of these same Western states continue to rule in favor of workplace drug-testing programs that arbitrarily discriminate against employees who use medical marijuana in compliance with state law while off the job.


In June, in a case called Roe v. Teletech, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled 8 to 1 that private employers may fire workers who test positive for the presence of inactive marijuana byproducts in their urine, even in cases where it’s determined that the employee was using cannabis in accordance with state law and away from the job site. The decision follows previous verdicts by the high courts of Oregon (Emerald Steel v. Bureau of Labor) and California (Ross v. Ragingwire) upholding similar discriminatory practices.


These rulings present medical-marijuana patients with a Hobson’s choice: your job or your medicine.


Yet according to a recently published review in the scientific journal Addiction, it’s unlikely “that heavy cannabis users represent a meaningful job safety risk unless using before work or on the job.” The review also reported that urinalysis testing, in particular, “has not been shown to have a meaningful impact on job injury/accident rates.” In short, the science rebukes the notion that responsible marijuana consumers should be sanctioned for their off-the-job pot use, much less state-authorized patients.


Unfortunately, as long as marijuana remains illegal for the majority of people, it’s likely that the courts will continue to uphold these “separate but equal” standards for pot patients. Only by legalizing and regulating cannabis for all adults will we see an end to the practice of pharmaceutical discrimination in the workplace.


Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML