Oregon and Washington decriminalized marijuana use several years ago. Government agencies now have public health data related to that change in law. Several questions remain, but the data suggests that managing the decriminalization of marijuana challenges contractors in the region.

The challenge is complicated by a shortage of skilled workers, particularly younger ones. Safety and workforce challenges are related in the context of marijuana because our knowledge of marijuana’s impacts is evolving at the same time younger people are evolving in their tolerance of the risks associated with marijuana use.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that younger people use marijuana at higher rates than older people. Meanwhile, younger people are in short supply for contractors because fewer such individuals are pursuing careers in the construction industry.

It is unsafe for workers under the influence of marijuana to operate construction equipment. This is supported by an AAA Foundation for Traffic report. The study found that in the year marijuana was decriminalized in Washington, traffic fatalities involving THC (the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana) doubled. Similarly, the Oregon Health Authority reports that monthly marijuana-involved emergency department visits doubled from October 2015 (when only limited early retail marijuana sales were permitted by the state) to November 2017.

Those reports of correlation do not prove that marijuana caused the accidents reported above. The time or duration of impairment due to marijuana use is difficult to measure.

Research published by the University of Washington notes that the duration of effect after a dose of marijuana is still the subject of debate among scientists. But, the research notes, “some consensus exists on 2-4 hours of effects after smoking decreasing quickly after maximum impairment of 20-40 minutes.” Depending on the product and method of ingestion, “mild effects have been documented at six hours or more post dosage.”

As the CDC summarizes the issue in the context of traffic safety: “limitations related to roadside and toxicology testing, marijuana detection time, and co-use of substances contribute to uncertainty about risk.”

Against these uncertain risk parameters, younger people appear to be more tolerant of the risks marijuana presents. The Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board reported data showing that in 2002, 22 percent of Washington 12th graders believed that regular use of marijuana had no risk or only a slight risk. By 2016, risk tolerance related to marijuana had changed enough to raise that number to 45 percent.

This data should not be extrapolated too far. The Washington 12th graders could have been answering the question regarding risk with a view toward long-term health impacts and not the riskiness of using marijuana while driving or working on a construction site.

The changing risk tolerance is also not surprising. People frequently discount well-known risks. For example, many more people fear flying with a commercial carrier than driving. Flying with a commercial carrier is statistically safer than driving. The irrational confidence in driving is probably because more people are familiar with how to drive than how to fly an airplane or simply drive more than fly.

With decriminalization, marijuana has become more common. Risk perceptions among people who come of age in a time that marijuana is more common will differ from older generations. As the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board data indicates, people who are completing high school today are more comfortable with marijuana than their peers in the past. This could suggest that the younger people whom contractors hope to recruit are more likely than older generations to be marijuana users.

Other data indicates that the people who are attracted to construction work use marijuana at greater rates than the general population. The CDC reports that 16.5 percent of construction workers reported using marijuana in the past 30 days. That rate of use exceeded the general population rate of 14.6 percent. And, among “safety-sensitive occupations,” construction workers reported the highest rate of marijuana use in the past 30 days of the date surveyed.

Construction workers are also unique in that they are less influenced by drug testing. The CDC reports that the reported “current use of marijuana was lower in industries that are known to perform routine drug testing on employees.” But, although the CDC acknowledged that construction workers are subjected to drug testing, they still reported a higher-than-average usage rate.

Therefore, contractors interested in managing safety face at least four challenges. First, the duration of impairment associated with marijuana use is uncertain, so evaluating whether a person is safe to work is an uncertain endeavor. Second, younger workers whom contractors are interested in recruiting are potentially more tolerant of risks associated with marijuana use than older workers, which suggests (but does not necessarily mean) that they may be less vigilant with respect to the risks associated with marijuana use. Third, construction workers are generally more likely to use marijuana than people who work in other safety-sensitive occupations, so marijuana safety is an issue that contractors must take seriously. Fourth, drug testing does not appear to deter construction workers from using marijuana to the same extent as drug testing does in other fields.

These challenges are manageable. Different people can work together with different perspectives regarding marijuana use. Construction teams can be unified in a quest to achieve the highest safety standards. Given that both knowledge about marijuana’s impacts and attitudes toward marijuana use are evolving, the key is to recognize that changes related to marijuana safety will occur frequently. Re-evaluate marijuana policies on a regular basis to ensure that policies and practices are delivering on safety objectives.

Column first appeared in the Daily Journal of Commerce on October 23, 2018.

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