California cannabis advocates are calling foul on the main data point being used against a bill that would protect medical cannabis patients’ off-the-clock use. 

According to the bill’s author, Assemblymember Rob Bonta, AB 2355 would prohibit employers from discriminating against workers on the basis of their status as a medical cannabis patient or on the basis of a patient’s positive drug test for the presence of cannabis. 

But a major part of the bill is that it would not protect employees who are impaired by or using cannabis in the workplace. Additionally, employers of personnel in safety-sensitive positions subjected to state and federal laws that prevent them from being able to reasonably accommodate for medical cannabis use would be exempt. That would include people like truck drivers, school bus drivers and aviation pilots. Another place the bill wouldn’t apply is for those receiving federal grants that would conflict with cannabis use.

While it doesn’t sound too wild in the age of legal marijuana to protect the rights of those using it as medicine, Americans Against Marijuana Legalization disagree.

The Opposition

AAML’s Scott Chipman took to L.os Angele’s airwaves on KNX citing a dated National Institute on Drug Abuse study that stated, “employees who tested positive for marijuana had 55 percent more industrial accidents, 85 percent  more injuries and 75 percent greater absenteeism compared to those who tested negative.”  The stat also found its way into an L.A. Times piece Chipman is quoted in, but it’s not specifically attributed to him. 

According to the cannabis advocates at California NORML, the stat on industrial accidents and injuries is bogus and has long been debunked by a follow-up study. In an internal email provided to L.A. Weekly, Proposition 215 coauthor and CANORML executive director Dale Gieringer notes the basis of the talking point is a National Institute on Drug Abuse report citing a 1990 study of postal workers by Zwerling, Ryan and Orav, the results of which are correctly reported in the article.     

“However it was part of a larger series of studies of U.S. postal workers, which we and others have actually cited to argue that drug testing is ineffective!” Gieringer said, “Indeed, a follow-up study by the same Zwerling, Ryan and Orav in 1992 concluded that pre-employment drug testing was not cost-effective!”

Another thing CANORML is taking issue with is the original study being cited as industrial accidents among “employees of all types, ” implying it looked at all sorts of industries and not just U.S. Postal Workers at one particular facility. 

The study was further debunked by the larger follow-up study at 21 different post offices by Normand, Salyards & Mahoney, which came to the opposite conclusion — there were no difference in accident rates between workers who were MJ-positive and those who weren’t. 

That study, however, wasn’t all pro-cannabis. Postal workers who had tested positive for illicit drugs had an absenteeism rate 59.3 percent higher than employees who had tested negative after 1.3 years. It was also found that employees who tested positive had a 47 percent higher rate of involuntary turnover than those who had tested negative, 15.41 percent versus 10.51 percent. It’ s also worth noting the study wasn’t cannabis-specific. 

AAML’s Rebuttal

We reached out to Chipman to at AAML to get his take on the follow-up research, and asked if he had any concerns that his hardest pro testing talking point had previously been scuttled.

“We consider the rights of employers and employees to maintain a drug-free workplace critically important,” Chipman told L.A. Weekly in an email. “There are many groups who refer to the numbers we have cited or other evidence that marijuana use is or could be a safety hazard in the workplace.”

Again we pointed Chipman towards the updated findings.

“We don’t think pot-use impacts in the work place has been debunked,” Chipman reiterated to the Weekly. “I have 40 employees myself and I don’t want any pot or other drug users working here. Also many pot users are polydrug users and crossfade drugs, creating dramatically increased impairment…We feel very comfortable using it and think it could even be an underestimate of impacts. It could be that the dramatic increase in use is also increasing pre-employment testing.”  

Chipman went on to note his organization recommends military testing protocol. 

Other stances previously taken by AALM include the idea the opioid crisis is in fact a mental health crisis. Also in their FAQ in response to the lack of documented cannabis overdoses, they point to the perpetrators of various heinous crimes being cannabis users.  

Lessons Learned

After giving them Chipman’s take on the research they pointed out, we asked CANORML what it’s like in the new era of cannabis reform where the opposition doesn’t have public opinion on their side anymore and point to these kinds of dated materials?

“It’s dangerous to set public policy based on a single study, but oftentimes I’ll be in meetings where someone will wave one about, sounding an alarm over it,” deputy director Ellen Komp told us. “The preponderance of evidence is on the side of sensible regulation, but it takes a lot of effort to evaluate all the studies on a topic.” 

Komp said the L.A. Times story taught her that, rather than just giving an opinion when she’s asked for one, she ought to back it up with some evidence. 

“I should have mentioned that The National Academy of Sciences, which conducted an exhaustive review of the literature on marijuana in 2017, concluded, “There is no or insufficient evidence to support … a statistical association between cannabis use and … occupational accidents or injuries.” she said, “Other scientific reviews have found that cannabis use is not associated with elevated rates of occupational accidents or injuries and liberalized marijuana laws are associated with greater labor participation, lower rates of absenteeism, and higher wages.”

But at the core of the argument, with all the provisions Bonta has taken to back employers of safety specific and heavily regulated workers, who are the people actually at risk by this bill passing?

“Patients who are able to work should have that right to not be discriminated for using medical cannabis, as prescribed by a physician,” Bonta said last week when announcing the bill,  “These are patients who need their medicine and there is no reason why cannabis, when used for medical purposes outside the workplace and work time, should not be treated in a similar way to any other prescribed medication.” 

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