This Michigan seminar on marijuana and the workplace was half-baked

Trion’s James Baiers, left, and Craig Vanderburg discuss marijuana in the workplace — but Reefer Madness still reigns.
Trion’s James Baiers, left, and Craig Vanderburg discuss marijuana in the workplace — but Reefer Madness still reigns. Larry Gabriel

With recreational, adult-use marijuana now legalized in Michigan, businesses and their human resources professionals now have to reconsider rules about pot and the workplace.

That was made pretty clear at the seminar "Michigan's New Marijuana Law: What Every Business Should Know," hosted by Trion Solutions on Thursday, Feb. 7 at the Auburn Hills Chamber of Commerce.

The ripple effect of legalizing adult-use marijuana is going in all kinds of directions. Marijuana is affecting driving law, food law, agriculture law, business zoning law, and more. At some point it will change finance law, and ultimately the war on drugs.

However, this is about dealing with change as it happens. The presentation put on by Trion's CEO Craig Vanderburg and chief legal officer James Baiers was a starting-from-zero kind of presentation. Really: Baiers literally discussed the difference in spelling between "marihuana" and "marijuana," and speculated on how much is 2.5 ounces — the amount an adult can have at home without having to lock it up in a vault.

"It's not about right or wrong," says Vanderburg. "It's about what is the potential impact if something happens in your workplace."

That's what it should be about, particularly in a manufacturing or industrial workplace. Every business owner probably has at least the occasional nightmare about liability issues if someone is hurt in their workplace. Vanderburg brought up the possibility of a Hi Lo operator under the influence running somebody over. That's a nightmare for everybody involved.

The folks from Trion are correct that employers definitely need to look at their policy regarding marijuana. And they touted experience on the subject based on doing business in Colorado and California, where medical and adult-use recreational have long been facts of life well before either came to Michigan. That should give folks at Trion some perspective.

"This goes beyond a change in the law," Vanderburg says. "It's getting into what's going on in society."

That was the setup. It sounded like they understand social trends, as if they had clocked that millennials don't fear marijuana and have a different attitude than older generations. The Trion folks played themselves as more or less objective arbiters of prudence for businesses with regard to marijuana, preaching that businesses should step back and take a look at policy.

All of that seemed to be a conservative approach. Of course you don't want people at work under the influence. That's a no-brainer. But how do you easily discern between the people who had a Sunday afternoon joint while watching the game and somebody who fired up in the car at lunch on Monday? That's a harder to answer question that is important to get figured out, and one that has a legitimate place in getting our relationship with marijuana figured out. Whoever comes up with a quick saliva test that can detect how much fresh THC is in a person is going to make a lot of money. Of course, somebody first has to figure out how to discern how much marijuana is too much.

In the meantime, Vanderburg gave the general recommendation that employers "stick to zero tolerance" and reminded them that despite Prop. 1, "you have the right fire somebody." Again, conservative and prudent.

Whoever comes up with a quick saliva test that can detect how much fresh THC is in a person is going to make a lot of money.

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What wasn't prudent and belied the panel's claims of objectivity were some comments that sounded straight from the Reefer Madness attitude about marijuana.

When Baiers began speaking, he quickly repeated a favorite post-election claim of anti-marijuana grumblers: "I don't know if people knew what they were voting on." Then, when discussing the 2.5-ounce amount, he noted that it "seems like a lot of marijuana."

Later, Vanderburg pontificated that there is a "substance abuse crisis" going on and that "marijuana is a gateway drug." They mentioned the hypothetical about a high Hi Lo driver enough times to make it clear that driving one of those after smoking marijuana would be a recipe for mayhem.

When the presentation was over, I asked Vanderburg about non-manufacturing places that don't have Hi Los rolling around. His answer was telling about what he thinks marijuana does to people.

"Let's say you have somebody in your accounting and finance department that comes in and they're high," he says, "and they would have never thought of doing this but now they're sitting at a desktop and they have the ability to commit fraud, move money out of the bank account. So did it impair your judgment?"

Apparently he thinks that marijuana turns good people into criminals. He says this person would not have even thought of committing fraud had he or she not used marijuana.

I could understand it if he had said the finance person got confused and put the numbers in the wrong column, or ran them through the wrong program, or even accidentally put the money in the wrong account. You might argue that being high made you get mixed up on something. However, Vanderburg asserts that marijuana can change your fundamental character and turn you into a criminal.

That's Reefer Madness, baby!

When I pointed this out to Vanderburg, he said that he didn't intend it that way. Maybe he didn't, but that's what he said. It tells me that he hasn't really thought of it that deeply if that is his first example out of that playbook. I would have expected that he had a very good example at hand to toss my way.

I'm not an HR guy nor am I adept at calculating risk and liability and all that. But I do recognize a batten-down-the-hatches approach to marijuana when I see one. The Trion guys basically argue that's the prudent thing to do until all of this gets more definitively sorted out.

But theirs isn't the only approach. There was a March 2018 article on titled "The Coming Decline of the Employment Drug Test." It reports a survey of 609 Colorado companies by Mountain States Employers Council found the companies that drug-test employees had dropped from 77 percent to 66 percent, and that those in states where medicinal and recreational marijuana are legal were leading the way.

The article quoted human resources policy lawyer James Reidy, who says, "We assume that a certain level of employees are going to be partaking on the weekends. We don't care."

Trion is a nationwide business, and their folks have to be aware of that trend and approach. That's not in or even suggested in their presentation. In his earliest remarks, Vanderburg mentions a worker using marijuana on Friday night and not really thinking it through that work loomed on Monday. The folks at Trion need to think that through. Either they have little understanding of marijuana or they're purposely spreading fear to drum up business.

The only problem with marijuana on Monday morning, three days after having used it on Friday, is having to take a drug test. And that is what Trion advises employers continue doing: Police their workers' behavior when they're not at work.

Employers have a freedom of choice about their policies, and they can consult with Trion or even outsource their HR department to the company. However, when the Trion crew comes on with this line that "it's not about right or wrong," don't believe them. For some, it's apparently still about Reefer Madness.

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About The Author

Larry Gabriel

Larry Gabriel covers cannabis for Metro Times. He also writes the Detroit Watch in the monthly Michigan Cannabis Industries Report. Larry's chapter "Rebirth of Tribe" in the book Heaven Was Detroit, from jazz to hip-hop and beyond chronicles the involvement of Marcus Belgrave, Wendell Harrison, Harold McKinney,...
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