Higher use, increased potency of marijuana may be affecting workforce
Steamboat Pilot & Today
The first retail marijuana store in Steamboat Springs opened nine years ago this month, selling legalized recreational pot for adults 21 and older. Now, experts say, a higher use rate, increased potency and perceived normalization of use could be affecting the workplace.
Workers intoxicated from pot while on the job is a prevalent and dangerous nationwide problem, said Ben Cort, CEO of the Foundry Treatment Center in Steamboat and a treatment and prevention consultant. He added that workers showing up to jobs intoxicated from marijuana can lead to accidents, injuries and poor work performance.
Cort said a key contributor to employees working high is marijuana sold in commercial stores today is many times stronger than products 20 to 30 years ago. In 1996, the average level of THC, the chemical responsible for psychological effects of marijuana, was 5% or less. Today, 30% THC is the norm in Colorado, and some powerful concentrates have THC levels as high as 98%, he said.
“The biggest problem is how to get a sober workforce. We are experiencing absolutely the highest record use rate that the country has ever seen,” said Cort, author of the 2017 book “Weed, Inc.: The Truth About the Pot Lobby, THC and the Commercial Marijuana Industry.”
Surveys from late 2022 show the number of people actively using marijuana now exceeds the number of people using tobacco, Cort said, with the highest use in the 24 to 32 age range.
“It bleeds over into the workplace, schools and family life. Higher use rate always comes with higher rates of problems,” Cort said.
Cort said the perceived risk of using cannabis is at an all-time low, explaining that the higher the perceived risk of using any substance, the lower the use often is.
“We’ve never recorded a lower perceived risk for cannabis and continue to see higher and higher use rates,” Cort said.
Although recreational marijuana is legal for adults 21 and older in Colorado, experts offer practical advice about how to maintain safe use.
- Be cautious when using marijuana concentrates due to high potency levels.
- Ask for products with 10% THC levels that also include CBD content.
- Only use marijuana on days off from work and when not driving.
- Be careful using within 24 hours of work or physical activities. Marijuana use can slow reaction times, reduce perception accuracy as well as fine and gross motor skills, impair memory, and increase singularity of focus that translates to wearing blinders that can lead to not noticing dangers.
With the higher potency of cannabis comes increased rates of addiction and more hospitalizations. Traditionally, the marijuana addiction rate among users was 10% or less but now is at a high of about 30%, he said.
“We aren’t using weed. We are using highly concentrated forms of THC at unnatural levels,” Cort said. “It does really intense things to the human brain and body, and there is a massive industry behind it.”
Higher use, increased potency and accidental ingestion continue to send patients to the emergency department at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center, said Dr. Laura Sehnert, emergency medicine physician and chief medical officer at YVMC.
“We do see unintentional adverse reactions more often than you might imagine, including paranoia, anxiety, visual or auditory hallucinations, nausea, vomiting, arrhythmia and elevated heart rate,” Sehnert said.
The physician said the top category of marijuana emergency visits is unintentional exposure that can happen at any age, including in young children and elderly adults, when cannabis products are mistaken for food. Although manufacturers of cannabis edibles have improved packaging clarity from earlier years, Sehnert stresses that users should store and safeguard pot edibles like any medication in the house.
“Keep it out of reach of children. Store it in the original packaging. Do not store it with other food, and lock it in a cabinet,” Sehnert advised.
Other top reasons for the emergency department visits include “marijuana naïve” patients with unanticipated reactions because of higher concentrations as well as chronic pot users who exhibit cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome, or severe bouts of vomiting. The cyclical vomiting is caused by receptors in the digestive tract that also respond to marijuana, Sehnert said.
Routt County educators Heidi Brown, prevention director at Partners for Youth, and Molly Lotz, co-creator of the Marijuana Education Initiative, say youth need consistent and reality-based messaging to learn the facts about marijuana and how it affects younger brains. The educators say the shift in perception due to legalized marijuana requires a shift in education to inform and empower teens.
Brown said Partners for Youth works to provide skills to resist peer pressure and data that shows a lower percentage of youth are using marijuana than what teens may perceive. According to the 2021 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, the percentage of high school students who used marijuana one or more times during the past 30 days dropped to 17% in 2021 compared to 21% in 2019.
“We are really trying to help kids make informed decisions and not be swayed by a misinformed impression that most kids are consuming marijuana,” Brown said. “We try to have conversations about ‘we know it’s normalized, but there are still risks involved effecting you mentally and physically in many ways.’”
“My advice, like any substance, if you are a chronic daily user and find yourself showing signs of addiction and using more frequently, consider whether or not you should abstain,” Sehnert said, noting the episodes of vomiting can continue with sustained marijuana use.
Cort, who is at work on a second book called “Weed, Incd,” teaches thousands of people a year about marijuana use concerns, including a presentation last week to the Moffat County Sheriff’s Office about state trends and current potency levels of marijuana.
“What I tell employers is intoxication in any form in the workplace is categorically unaccepted,” Cort said.
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