Opioids Hurting the Workforce, Marijuana Not So Much

Big Pharma, Doctors, pills and money
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All across the United States, presidents and CEO’s of companies are saying the abuse of prescription painkillers and other doctor-approved medications is having a negative impact on their bottom line, according to a new survey by the National Safety Council.

It seems that the portion of the great American workforce that has succumbed to the grips of addictive prescription medications is now missing around 50 percent more work than their sober counterparts—a situation that is causing these people to take off work as many as six weeks per year.

Although absenteeism is one of the primary complaints among companies dealing with this problem, the report also found that companies are dealing with drug-related injuries, worker-to-worker pill deals and even overdose situations more often.

“Employers must understand that the most dangerously misused drug today may be sitting in employees’ medicine cabinets,” said National Safety Council president and CEO Deborah A.P. Hersman. “Even when they are taken as prescribed, prescription drugs and opioids can impair workers and create hazards on the job.”

“We hope these findings prompt employers to take the lead on this emerging issue, so that workplaces can be as safe as possible,” she added.

The report found slightly fewer than 60 percent of the companies out there are putting their workers through random drug tests. Of the ones that do, they are discovering that somewhere around 41 percent of their staff are on some kind of opioid medication.

But because these drugs are not illegal—that is, as long as the person has a prescription—companies cannot terminate a worker for simply turning in a positive result. In most cases, prescriptions painkillers are covered through company insurance plans—making it relatively easy for workers to get their hands on a variety of dangerous drugs in a manner that is completely legal.

It is for that reason that a growing number of employers are now interested in providing insurance coverage that deals in alternative pain treatments. Almost 90 percent of the companies said they would support this type of change in an effort to reduce the problem with prescription pain pills.

When it comes to alternatives to pain medications, medical marijuana is taking the lead in a number of states. Unfortunately, since the federal government still considers the herb an Illegal drug, most companies have refused to amend their drug policies in such a way that allows workers to use cannabis as a replacement for narcotic painkillers.

For now, the business community has the support of the courts in respect to this issue.

In fact, a couple of years ago, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that employers were well within their rights to terminate an employee for testing positive for marijuana—even if that worker’s pot use was strictly off-duty and for medicinal purposes.

“Employees who engage in an activity, such as medical marijuana use, that is permitted by state law but unlawful under federal law are not protected by the statute,” Justice Allison H. Eid wrote in the decision.

It is a frustrating situation for many employees living in legal states, especially since evidence shows that medical marijuana does not come with the same problems as opioid medications.

Last year, a study published in the Health Economics journal found that employees were less likely to call in sick in states where medical marijuana was legal.

Overall, researchers found that worker absenteeism dropped by eight percent in jurisdictions with legal weed.

“The results of this paper therefore suggest that [medical marijuana laws] would decrease costs for employers as it has reduced self-reported absence from work due to illness/medical issues,” the study authors wrote.

Furthermore, several other studies have shown that fewer people are using opioid medications in states that have legalized medical marijuana.

“In theory, we would expect the adverse consequences of opioid use to decrease over time in states where medical marijuana use is legal, as individuals substitute marijuana for opioids in the treatment of severe or chronic pain,” researchers wrote last year in the American Journal of Public Health.

In certain situations, marijuana can even help people be more productive workers. Some studies have shown that cannabis has the ability to increase mental focus and encourage creativity.

The latest findings from the National Safety Council shows that companies in legal marijuana states could benefit greatly by establishing policies that allow workers to replace prescription drugs with cannabis medicine.

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