Concerns about people high at work delay pot legalization vote
Monday was supposed to be a monumental day in Trenton – the passage of a bill legalizing recreational marijuana. Instead the voting sessions were canceled amid a group of policy disagreements, including how to handle workplace safety concerns.
Once-identical bills in the Senate and Assembly diverged in some key ways in committee meetings last Thursday, including whether to cap the number of licensed marijuana growers in the early years of the new industry and how much of the tax revenue to devote to social-justice causes.
But the one that got the most attention at the Senate committee’s hearing on the bill was workplace safety, with Ray Cantor, vice president of government affairs for the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, urged lawmakers to error on the side of safety in maintaining drug-free workplaces.
“I realize that we may be holding cannabis users to a different standard than maybe alcohol users,” Cantor said.
State Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, said employers can require that people not be impaired at work but cannot tell them they can’t do something legal on their off time.
“But constitutionally, the people have spoken, and you can consume marijuana in New Jersey starting on Jan. 1. And there’s nothing that we can do to stop that,” Scutari said.
Voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment legalizing adult-use marijuana in the Nov. 3 election. Results haven’t been certified yet, but the latest tallies – official in 15 counties, not yet final in six others – show 67% of voters approved it, more than 2.7 million.
State Sen. Paul Sarlo, D-Bergen, said legalization is coming, given that voters approved it, but that it creates liability issues for some industries.
“And the first person who puts a shovel or a backhoe through a gas pipe or a center main, we’re all going to be running and screaming and blaming each other,” Sarlo said. “That’s my biggest concern because we don’t have the testing yet.”
There is testing, but it isn’t quick and doesn’t necessarily measure whether a person is currently impaired, lawmakers said.
The Senate’s latest version of the bill allows for random drug testing and testing if there’s any suspicion a person is impaired by marijuana. The Assembly bill says that suspicion must be reasonable – and does not include random testing.
The bill also requires the involvement of "workplace impairment recognition experts," which are scarce, but Scutari said a new industry of them will be developed.
Dennis Hart, executive director of the Chemistry Council of New Jersey said a reliance on experts isn’t enough or practical for some businesses.
“We can’t be out on a plant location at 2 o’clock in the morning, 24/7, with experts monitoring everybody. We need the ability to say there’s a potential for random drug testing,” Hart said.
Michael Hoffman, an attorney in Vineland, said there are no drug recognition experts or evaluation programs that have been held scientifically reliable by the state’s courts. He said the issue is confirmation bias.
“It’s teaching an old dog a new trick and using a new trick that has not been scientifically proven reliable,” Hoffman said.
State Sen. Troy Singleton, D-Burlington, said it takes just an eight-hour course to become a drug recognition expert, according to the California Highway Patrol.
“I’m not the right person to talk about DREs because I’m not a big fan,” Singleton said. “I think it’s literally junk science.”
Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.