Ever since marijuana was legalized in Colorado in 2012, major league sports executives have huddled privately on what this news means to their current drug testing programs. After all, is it fair of an employer not to allow the consumption of a legal product? Now it seems the other shoe has dropped as the recently released Baltimore Ravens offensive tackle Eugene Monroe advocated that the NFL stop testing for marijuana. This was followed up by Tennessee Titans linebacker Derrick Morgan who called for the NFL to study the use of medical marijuana, particularly as it relates to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a malady that disproportionally afflicts former NFL players. How these arguments unwind may go a long way in determining how America handles the issue of marijuana in the workplace.
The coalition to push the legalization of marijuana is unique in that it involves groups usually on the polar opposites. On the right you have free market conservatives like the late William F. Buckley who once said regarding prosecution for the possession of marijuana, “A sterner way to put it is that it is an outrage, an imposition on basic civil liberties and on the reasonable expenditure of social energy.” Joining libertarians in the yes camp are, for lack of a better word, stoners, those who enjoy the recreational consumption of marijuana.
The legalization of marijuana, although gaining traction in the court of public opinion, is still hotly contested. Gallup for the first time in 2013 reported that support for legalization has topped 50%, which indicates a sizable portion of the population disagrees. Those who oppose legalization can easily cite statistics that give one pause, such as the 44% rise in crime in Denver since legalization in Colorado. Also, recent health studies have concluded that heavy marijuana usage in teens leads to lower IQs, and pot smokers are more susceptible to schizophrenia and having smaller gray-matter volume in the orbital frontal cortex.
But how does smoking pot on one’s spare time impact performance at the workplace? The Society of Human Resource Management did a study with HR managers on drug testing and noted the following positive impacts after organizations began drug testing: a noticeable drop in absenteeism, increased productivity, a drop in workers compensation claims, and lower turnover in employees. Although the study was regarding drug testing as a whole and not necessarily just marijuana, it is clear to many that it is in the employer’s best interest, whether you employ world class athletes or machinists, that employees not be social marijuana users.
Although many employers would prefer that their workers refrain from pot smoking in their off hours, do they have the right to insist employees abstain in regions where pot is legal? Interesting enough, Colorado has provided one of the first important test cases, involving a Dish Network employee who was legally using medicinal marijuana but fired for failing a drug test in 2010. In the end, the trial court, the Colorado Court of Appeals, and the Colorado Supreme Court all upheld the firing.
As of now the sports world has been holding firm against recreational marijuana usage among its players. One of the exceptions is the NCAA, which has cut penalties for athletes who have failed drug tests for marijuana. Mary Wilfert, associate director of the NCAA’s Sports Science Institute, has asked, “Does it make sense for the NCAA, the national governing body, to test for recreational drug use which is not performance enhancement?”
While the NCAA is moving towards leniency the professional sports ranks still draw a hard line against marijuana usage. After all, if athletes are pot consumers it could negatively affect both player performance and the organization’s public image. This concern was illustrated by this year’s NFL draft, where on draft night Laremy Tunsil saw his stock status plummet when a picture showing him smoking weed was hacked onto his Twitter account. According to Forbes, this one photo cost him approximately $13 million as he lasted longer in the draft than projected.
The sports world is traditionally more cautious than most businesses. When it comes to professional sports organizations’ unease regarding players’ social marijuana use, their caution is understandable. After all, if you were paying millions of dollars for peak athletic performance, wouldn’t you also try to insist your players be drug and marijuana free? But if the sports world starts to crack and OKs marijuana usage for its athletes, you can rest assured this will be a bellwether for the American workplace, and it will be game over for those who wish that the prohibition continues.