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Impact of legal marijuana on businesses pondered

Impact of legal marijuana on businesses pondered

Legislators, business leaders at roundtable discussion say measure shouldn't be part of state budget
Impact of legal marijuana on businesses pondered
Dr. Carolyn Jones-Assini, chair of internal medicine at Ellis Medicine,makes a point during Thursday's roundtable discussion.
Photographer: John Cropley/Gazette Business Editor

COLONIE — New York employers are wrestling with the implications of legalized recreational marijuana use by their employees, compounded by the fact that details of a potential legalization are being rushed into place.

The Capital Region Chamber held a roundtable discussion on the subject Thursday with four state Assembly members and 11 business leaders. 

The clearest consensus from the meeting was that legalization is too important and complicated an issue to happen as part of the 2019-2020 state budget bill, as was originally proposed but which may or may not happen, depending on whose opinion is asked and what twists budget negotiations have taken that day.

While there was a range of opinions at the roundtable on legalization itself, all seemed to agree that some of the factors driving the proposed legalization — including fairer treatment of minority communities and greater tax revenue for the state — are overshadowing concerns such as public safety.

There is not enough data to define when a marijuana user is impaired, the participants said, and therefore no easy way for police to target driving while impaired or for employers to penalize working while stoned.

Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy, D-Albany, said that’s the obstacle for her: While she fully supports decriminalization and wants to see the social issues arising from the war on drugs addressed, there hasn’t been enough research on what the legalization would do to youths and drivers.

She noted the language in New York’s legalization proposals gives very little discretion to employers seeking a drug-free workplace, unlike Massachusetts, which gave much more leeway to employers when it recently legalized recreational use of marijuana.

Maureen Young of GE Power said as a heavy manufacturer, her company must maintain a zero-tolerance policy for marijuana use unless and until there is a legal definition of what constitutes impairment and a test that indicates it.

Dr. Carolyn Jones-Assini, chair of internal medicine at Ellis Medicine, said this extends into the medical world — it would be “naive” to call marijuana use safe but there little data as to how unsafe it is and in what quantity it’s unsafe.

Assemblyman John T. McDonald III, D-Cohoes, said the idea that marijuana is safe because no one has ever died from an overdose doesn’t consider those killed by marijuana-impaired drivers.

Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner, D-Round Lake, noted that illegal marijuana is already a $2 billion industry in New York state, so while legalization could modify the considerations for employers, it would not create a wholly new phenomenon. Addictive behavior appears to be part of the human psyche, none with more deadly consequences than alcohol, which is legal, she added.

“At some point we have to say to people: Be responsible,” Woerner said.

Lisa Reddy of Omni Development said the culture of a company is a critical part of the impact of marijuana use. Safety is stressed from day one for new Omni employees, she said, and the company was able to go seven years without an accident as a result.

Michael Zovistoski of UHY Advisors said the issue for accounting firms like his, which deal in the business of facts or numbers instead of machinery, is not accidents but reduced accuracy and productivity.

Kirk Lewis, executive director of Schenectady ARC, said a lot of his 600 employees are quite young, some of them working their first jobs out of school, and due to that age demographic, may be more likely to use marijuana. 

ARC has already run into the issue of impaired vs. non-impaired: Marijuana’s intoxicating ingredient, THC, remains in the body long after the high wears off. One employee who crashed a vehicle later tested positive for THC, Lewis said, but a state trooper at the crash scene found zero indication of impairment.

Tom O’Connor, the chamber’s vice president of government relations, said the rush to legalization could put businesses that receive federal dollars in conflict with federal laws requiring a drug-free workplace. The tangle of state and federal laws creates a cluster of unknown and unintended consequences, he said.

Frank Kerbein of the Business Council of New York state said he objects to the burden of proof of impairment being placed on employers without impairment being defined. With edible marijuana available as gummy chews, there won’t be the telltale signs such as alcohol on the breath or smoke on the clothing.

“Is that gummy bear on your breath?” he joked.

Early language of the marijuana legalization proposals in New York state amounts to a de facto ban on pre-employment testing of job applicants for marijuana use, Kerbein said. The Business Council opposes that, he said, even as he noted he knows at least one major retailer has stopped testing applicants for marijuana use — it was getting so many positive results it was hard to hire enough people.

Assemblywoman Mary Beth Walsh, R-Ballston, the sole Republican among the legislators present, said she’s opposed to legalization, having personally seen the impact of addiction in her years as an attorney in family court. She feels like it will happen with or without her support — she just wish it wasn’t following the “ready, shoot, aim” protocol with which issues are often addressed in New York state government.

That may or may not be the case:

The move to legalize adult recreational marijuana in New York appears to have lost some of the momentum it gained in late 2018, when Democrats took control of state government. Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently declared that it wouldn’t happen as part of the budget, but Assemblyman McDonald said the Assembly speaker subsequently told him it was still tucked into the budget bill.

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