Virginia marijuana legalization creates hazy issue for employers and workers

Employers in Virginia will soon have to grapple with how to handle new marijuana laws. Pot will be legal starting July 1. The question is – are there enough protections for those who use marijuana for recreational or medicinal use?

Eric Postow, a labor and employment attorney with the Parlatore Law Group, said businesses are going to have to adapt and juggle two things – creating a safe environment, but also making sure they don’t leave their employees in a vulnerable space.

READ MORE: Virginia legislature approves of changes to Gov’s marijuana legalization bill

"People should not mistake legalization with the ability to just use and have no consequences at work," said Postow.

People who use marijuana for medical purposes in Virginia and have a prescription from a doctor will have the most protections. The law prohibits employers from discriminating against those employees and terminating or disciplining them for having marijuana in their system. However, recreational users have the least protections because the law does not stop businesses from drug testing employees.

Virginia is an at-will state so an employer can terminate or discipline an employee for marijuana use. Postow keeps it simple – he says if you wouldn’t do it with alcohol, you shouldn’t do it with cannabis.

READ MORE: Virginia lawmakers pushing for mandatory in-person learning option

"When it comes down to safety, impairment on the job, people should not be showing up to work high just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Just like with alcohol – you should not show up to work drunk on alcohol and you can be terminated for that so I don’t think it gives leeway to cannabis users to say ‘it’s legal so I can do anything I want now’," said Postow.

DC has decriminalized marijuana, but the school district announced they will be testing contractors and volunteers to take a drug test which is stirring up some controversy.

DC Council members are calling this "bad policy" and asking DC Public Schools to reverse this action or else they will implement emergency legislation to do just that.

DC Public Schools sent this statement to Fox 5:

"DCPS works to ensure our clearance processes and mandatory drug testing parameters for individuals serving in 'safety-sensitive' positions in our schools comply with all District and federal laws to protect the safety of our students. We value the feedback from the D.C. Council and our community. We are reviewing our policies to determine whether any further changes can be made to align with the spirit of the District’s values and adhere to federal regulation."

Advocacy groups and Postow said this policy may discriminate against people who consume or are exposed to marijuana legally off the clock.

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"It seems like a counterproductive reactionary measure," said Postow. "It starts to be a very fuzzy area of enforcement. And the real question is why – are we achieving our goals of protecting the students with this or could we do this in another way – let’s focus more on impairment than drug testing."

According to studies and experts, THC can stay in a person’s system for 30 days or more far longer than alcohol or other substances. Someone could have smoked once – one month ago legally – then they do a drug test, it shows up, and they’re reprimanded as a result. That is where the gray area comes in.

Postow said basically if a business starts terminating their employees who are using legally – they’ll run out of workers.