Already forced to deal with a myriad of issues on an everyday basis, contractors in two states recently added another to the list: marijuana. Colorado and Washington residents voted to legalize the drug last November and HVAC contractors in both states are examining hiring policies, as well as informing their employees of the dangers and risks of employment under the influence.

Business as Usual

“It’s a surprising event,” said Kandi Crawford, president, Air Systems Engineering Inc., Tacoma, Wash. “Personally, I think it just impacts the state in a negative way for businesses because of some extra considerations. Doing business in the state of Washington is challenging enough. We have some state requirements that are just different than other places, and this is just another issue we have to deal with.”

Curtis Dahl, manager, Sundance Energy Services Inc., Bothell, Wash., said his company has taken the legalization very seriously.

“Right away, we reviewed it,” Dahl said. “Coming to work high on marijuana would be no different than being drunk on the job. We deal with it the same way we do alcohol. Alcohol is a legal drug, and so is marijuana, but if you are at work and intoxicated on either of those, that’s grounds for immediate dismissal.”

For John Ward, president, Applewood Plumbing, Heating & Electric, Denver, he said his company will continue to operate under a federal-drug-law-trumps-state-law policy, meaning he and his company still view marijuana as an illegal substance.

“All of our employees and applicants for employment who are being hired have to pass drug tests,” Ward said. “We will continue this until the courts tell us otherwise. Only time will tell how legalization of this drug will affect our workforce.”

Setting Boundaries

Regarding implementation of the voters’ will, Colorado is currently ahead of Washington.

Colorado’s Amendment 64 allows for the personal use, possession, and limited home-growing of marijuana for adults 21 and older.

Colorado legislators approved a 15 percent excise tax and a 10 percent sales tax on recreational sales, as well as limiting the amount a tourist may buy to one-quarter of an ounce, and restricting a private citizen to the growth of six plants at any given time. While Gov. John Hickenlooper has yet to sign the bill as of presstime, he has indicated that he intends to do so. Sales are expected to commence Jan. 1, making Colorado the first state to regulate and tax recreational sales of the substance.

Washington Initiative 502 (I502) initialized the legalization of recreational marijuana in the state. The state has until Dec. 1 to set regulations under the initiative.

In both states, framework legislation states adults can legally possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana.

A Growing Concern

Crawford said her company was aware of the issue going in, but had to wait and see what transpired during the election. Once voters passed I502, she went into action.

“We’re a company that has a monthly breakfast meeting and we just addressed the issue and told them there was no change (in our policy),” Crawford said. “The reality is that we must maintain a safe workplace, thus, we haven’t altered our policy at all.”

For Dahl, the issue was brought up in company safety meetings. He said, as a staff reminder, they read verbatim from their employee manual.

“The marijuana law, I don’t think it’s had an effect whatsoever to the way we do business,” he said. “A lot of my guys do random drug testing now and again. If you do research, you’ll find out that marijuana is not a huge societal problem.”

Both Dahl and Crawford said their companies implement pre-hire drug testing and administer random drug testing. When someone is involved in an accident, drug testing is again part of the process.

Recreational Use

Dahl admitted that marijuana isn’t his most pressing concern.

“We have younger people working for us that may smoke pot on their own time,” he said. “I feel the real danger to my employees is through the abuse of legal drugs.”

He’s more inclined to worry about the abuse of alcohol or prescription drugs before marijuana, which he believes are a bigger danger to his employees.

“Alcohol and legal drugs are a much worse and perverse problem in our community and our state than marijuana,” Dahl said. “To me, someone using OxyContin is probably the worst guy in the world to have working for you because he has a very, very expensive habit.”

Despite what workers do on their own time, both Dahl and Crawford said they view showing up to work high on marijuana as being no different than showing up to work drunk.

“Bottom line, we look at marijuana use almost identically as we do to alcohol,” Dahl said. “In all fairness, maybe it’ll become as much of a problem as alcohol is, but clearly in our society, alcohol has to be by far the most abused drug in the U.S.”

The effect of Colorado and Washington’s marijuana laws could very well impact how other states proceed with what is being perceived as a very hot-button issue.

“Unfortunately, like alcohol, I think it will be abused by a minority of the population,” Ward said. “I also believe there will be a large population of people who choose not to use or abuse it.”

Only Time Will Tell

As state legislatures roll on with their work in both Colorado and Washington, businesses are not yet reporting any impact.

“I’m totally surprised at how little effect it’s seemingly had on anything in Washington,” Dahl said. “I don’t hear about it much at all. Again, it probably has made it easier for those who smoke marijuana to get it. I haven’t heard about stores opening up, and I certainly haven’t seen any of them.”

That could all change in short notice as the legislation ramps up and new rules are put into place.

“While there is much talk about legal pot here in Colorado it is not generally available, but that will soon change,” Ward said. “Our state legislature is feverishly working on new laws and systems designed to control, tax, and protect the public from the consequences of this newly legal drug.”

More than anything else, though, safety is the biggest concern for contractors when it comes to their policies on marijuana — legal or not. “People in construction take safety very seriously,” Crawford said. “There’s paramount concern for our people and our customers. All the contractors here are on the same page. Even though there’s been a change in the law, it has not impacted how we do business — yet.”

Publication date: 6/17/2013 

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