If states limited an employer’s ability to fire employees for consuming cannabis outside the workplace, the number of people who would use marijuana would increase by 9 percentage points. Pictured: Derick Barbee smokes his free marijuana joints during a rally at Denver Civic Center Park, September 09, 2013. (RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post)

Workplace prohibition weighs into employee marijuana use decisions, Yale study finds

About a quarter of people surveyed in states set about to vote on legalizing recreational marijuana will never imbibe — regardless of how loosely it is regulated — while one in five will consume regardless of what approach states take following legalization.

But for the majority in-between, things like cost, government tracking of purchases and workplace bans all weigh into the decision on whether to consume or not, said Mike McLaughlin, a graduate student at Yale School of Public Health.

“It is a key issue,” McLaughlin said of workplace prohibitions on marijuana.

McLaughlin, who presented his research findings Monday at the American Public Health Association’s annual meeting in Denver, tried to uncover what issues mattered most to residents in five states that have legalization on their ballots, and what regulatory approaches states might take if they wanted to influence usage.

He surveyed 534 adults in Arizona, California, Florida, Massachusetts and Michigan, measuring their responses under four scenarios.

About 5 percent of respondents said a state tracking marijuana purchases would deter them from using, while a similar share said the possibility of arrest for smoking in public would influence them. A price hike of around $20 a gram, orchestrated through higher taxes and fees, would curtail use by another 5 percentage point.

But if states limited an employer’s ability to fire employees for consuming cannabis outside the workplace, the number of people who would use marijuana would increase by 9 percentage points. Among those in the survey who could be swayed, facing no workplace repercussions would boost consumption by 20 percent.

McLaughlin said the value an individual places on a job likely factors into the mix. Someone in an easy-to-replace or low-paying service job might consume regardless of workplace prohibitions. But a highly paid engineer might avoid consuming marijuana for purely economic reasons.

Employers can limit and test for the use of marijuana outside the workplace under the Drug-Free Workplace Act. But that would change if cannabis ceases to be a controlled substance under federal law. Colorado voted to legalize recreational pot sales and use in 2012.

“The issue for employers is there is no way to accurately tell if someone is impaired now or if they smoked it two weeks ago,” said Curtis Graves, staff attorney with the Mountain States Employers Council in Denver.

Graves said before Colorado voters approved recreational marijuana, employers asked about how to implement drug testing. Now, the calls he gets are about conducting drug tests that exclude THC, the ingredient linked to marijuana’s high.

Employers in the hospitality industry have become much more accepting of employees using marijuana since its legalization, but industries with a safety-focus have maintained a zero-tolerance policy, he said.

McLaughlin said his research found a common sentiment among those surveyed in states that may soon legalize pot.

“People want marijuana to be treated like alcohol,” he said.

This story was first published on DenverPost.com