Expert: Springfield businesses need to plan now for medical marijuana

Marijuana is packaged at Harborside, a medical marijuana dispensary in Oakland, Calif., (Jim Wilson/The New York Times)

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Marijuana is packaged at Harborside, a medical marijuana dispensary in Oakland, Calif., (Jim Wilson/The New York Times)

It’s critical that businesses start thinking now about how they plan to handle medical marijuana in the workplace, an expert told Springfield business leaders on Thursday.

Ohio House Bill 523 legalizes medical marijuana in the state, beginning on Sept. 8 this year. Many employers will face a decision on whether to accommodate employees who wish to use medical marijuana, said Karen Pierce, managing director of Working Partners. The firm specializes in helping businesses minimize the risks associated with substance abuse.

MORE: Springfield medical marijuana ban ends, area gets 2 dispensaries

The legal issues involved are complicated, she said, but employers still have the right to prohibit the use, possession or distribution of marijuana in the workplace. The law also doesn’t prevent an employer from firing or refusing to hire a worker because of the use of medical marijuana.

The critical issue, Pierce said, is that employers start thinking about their policies now. And regardless of whether they decide to accommodate employees who wish to use medical marijuana, they should be able to justify their decision to customers, employees, members of the public and others who could be affected by the decision.

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“I want you to make a decision rationally and not emotionally,” Pierce told the business leaders gathered at Clark State Community College’s Brinkman Educational Center.

The legislation allows patients who have one of 21 medical conditions, including cancer and Parkinson’s disease, to seek a physician’s recommendation and acquire a medical marijuana card. Patients cannot grow marijuana in their homes. And it must be consumed in the form of edibles, patches or vaporizing. Smoking isn’t allowed.

DETAILS: Springfield medical pot advocate: End of ban good for business

Pierce also noted that although marijuana has been legalized for those specific medical conditions in Ohio, it’s still illegal at the federal level. It’s also critical employers clearly explain their policies to workers, whether an employer decides to accommodate use of marijuana or ban it.

READ MORE: 20 sites sought medical marijuana dispensaries in Springfield

State officials were transparent when developing the existing rules, she said but it’s still a complicated issue for employers.

“When Ohio was putting together their law, they did a phenomenal job of driving around the state and hearing from people,” Pierce said.

Companies who deal with large federal contracts are likely barred from accommodating workers who choose to use medical marijuana because of the federal restrictions, she said. Employers with workers who travel also need to be aware that the rules vary by state.

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Several barriers remain to make it difficult for some workers to access medical marijuana, Pierce said. Some physicians will be unlikely to recommend it for patients, for example, and the cost could be high, she said.

No one-size-fits-all approach exists for dealing with medical marijuana, Pierce said, so employers need to be thinking of potential challenges well in advance.

“The subject matter is head-scratching,” Pierce said.

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