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Ignoring It Isn’t an Option: Drug Use and Substance Abuse Must Be Addressed by Employers

Sep 17, 2021 prescription and illegal drugs

This is an updated blog originally published January 15, 2019. 

There can be an element of “don’t ask, don’t tell” to employee drug and alcohol use, but this is no time to bury your head in the sand.

Smart Business article by Jayne Gest

With the opioid epidemic, prescription drug utilization has many of the same potential consequences as someone who is using illegal drugs, in terms of the ability to be present and fully engaged. Additionally, shifting societal views and many states’ acceptance of medical marijuana create even more change.

“Job candidates are already coming in for pre-employment drug testing, and when they test positive for marijuana, saying, ‘Wait, that’s not a drug anymore.’ But just because it’s legal in more than 30 states doesn’t mean it’s not a controlled federal substance,” says Stephen Ligus, vice president and employee benefits leader at Hylant.

With the low unemployment rate, some employers realize not only will they probably employ individuals in the future who may not pass a drug test, they already have employees who wouldn’t pass.

A zero-tolerance policy and hardline approach may no longer be an option for everyone. But a comprehensive policy for a drug-free workplace or substance abuse is a must for all business owners.

Smart Business spoke with Ligus about employer drug policies in businesses today.

Do companies typically have a drug-free workplace or substance abuse policy?
Given the rapidly changing environment having a current drug-free workplace policy is essential. Some businesses have integrated a drug-free workplace with safety programs and do random drug tests to get discounts on workers’ compensation premiums. Others are federal contractors that must have a drug-free workplace policy or employ drivers, which need to meet Department of Transportation qualifications.

Why is it important to have a comprehensive policy in your handbook?
If you don’t have a policy, it’s difficult to enforce the conditions you want for your workplace. Take a holistic approach — recognize the risks inherent in your population, the potential safety issues involved and understand that society is changing.

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A comprehensive policy doesn’t mean a failed test is grounds for immediate termination, but it should help protect your organization and provide resources to, hopefully, help individuals.

To assist employees with substance abuse, employers provide employee assistance programs (EAPs), awareness of community resources and even peer counseling.

What’s important to understand about medical marijuana law?
Medical marijuana laws do not provide a ‘free pass’ to use marijuana in the workplace. Nor does it provide employees freedom to show up to work under the influence. Your policy should state that employees can’t work under the influence if it interferes with workplace safety, ability to work, etc. Employers also can take a hardline stance against possession and use of the drug and its paraphernalia, as well as distribution. From a federal standpoint, it remains an illegal drug.

Overall, it’s increasingly difficult to determine whether someone is under the influence. Proper training and education of your supervisors and managers is essential. As an example, mood swings or being lethargic may indicate use of a substance, medical prescription or it could mean the person is just having a bad day.

How does an employer’s health plan play into this?
Medical marijuana is not a benefit paid for by health plans; however, virtually every health plan covers mental health and substance abuse treatment. From a mental health parity standpoint, it’s important that employees and their dependents understand their plan’s access to care. For employers, there needs to be a firewall between your health plan and your employment decisions. For example, there may be additional protections for employees through other laws and regulations, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, which should be consulted.

In all instances, employers should consult their attorney and employee benefits professional to review their policies.

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