For most of its history marijuana has been deemed not safe for work. But as attitudes and uses for marijuana change, some positive ripple effects are finding their way into the office.
In states with strong medical marijuana policies, that future may already be unfolding, suggests new research.
States with medical marijuana policies have seen worker's compensation claims have gone down, albeit modestly, according to a paper published Wednesday in the journal Health Economics. The study reports that in states with medical marijuana laws, workers are 6.7 percent less likely to file a worker's compensation claim, compared to the average.
Catherine Maclean, the study's corresponding author and a health economist at Temple University, tells Inverse that this research is early evidence that people are turning to marijuana to ease the bumps, aches, and scratches that arise from a job that's hard on the body.
While better pain management isn't the only reason someone might not file a worker's compensation claim, this study suggests that marijuana can play a significant enough role in pain management — and cause ripple effects through a place of work. When it came to the study population, in some cases using marijuana was interpreted as an effective way to treat symptoms – so much so that they skipped the process of filing for insurance that can provide medical care.
The pattern raises this question: If medical marijuana laws can have even a small effect on how workers manage injury, what might the effects of recreational legalization of marijuana be?
The ripple effect of medicinal marijuana
Marijuana's medical potential has been gaining ground, both scientifically and in public consciousness. Thirty-three states have medical marijuana programs. The Pew Research Center estimates that, in 2019, 59 percent of Americans were in favor of legalizing marijuana for both medical and recreational use.
The research into just how powerful medical marijuana can be has grown in tandem. For instance, cannabidiol, a compound present in marijuana is used in FDA-approved epilepsy medication. Additional work has suggested that marijuana may be beneficial when it comes to pain management.
"There is substantial overlap in the conditions that marijuana can be used to treat symptoms and the conditions common among workers' compensation recipients."
Maclean notes that there's some natural overlap between the conditions for which marijuana seems to hold promise, and the injuries that people get on the job. Those injuries tend to be strains, sprains, cuts, contusions, inflammation or fractures, the study notes.
"There is substantial overlap in the conditions that marijuana can be used to treat symptoms and the conditions common among workers' compensation recipients," she says. "Together, this information prompted my co-author and I to study this question."
The team hypothesizes that looking at worker's compensation claims in states that have passed medical marijuana laws could be another way of looking at how medical marijuana access can impact how workers deal with the symptoms of those injuries.
This study looked into workers compensation claims that were filed in states that had enacted medical marijuana laws before 2012. Overall, they evaluated the number of claims filed between 1993 and 2012.
Because they saw decreases in workers' compensation claims, the research suggests marijuana could have helped with symptom management, which in turn drives those claims down. But if that is the case, the effects were "modest," the authors note.
That said, in the paper, the authors contextualize their work by alluding to other studies that show that, when it's available, people do tend to turn to marijuana to manage medical conditions.
And in some cases, they choose it over other types of pain management drugs. The authors point to a 2014 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, which investigated patterns of opioid overdoses states with medical marijuana laws. Those researchers found that opioid overdoses in 10 states that had medical marijuana policies before 2010 were 24.8 percent lower, on average, than states without those laws.
Still, there are plenty of conditions that marijuana can't help treat. A broken bone won't be healed by cannabis alone. And there's evidence that, in some cases, high THC content in some strains of cannabis may open people up to additional mental health issues, like psychosis (though CBD may offset those effects).
But for injuries on the job, marijuana may already be proving to be helpful.
Using marijuana to manage symptoms
In combination with other research, Maclean says this study points to yet another way we can weigh the costs and benefits of legalizing marijuana recreationally, not just medically. She suggests that past work has shown that full legalization can help remove stigma around the use of marijuana for medical purposes, improve access, and change whether people see marijuana as risky.
"Thus, together, these studies suggest that legalization of recreational marijuana may lead to more patients using marijuana for medical purposes and experiencing better symptom management, and therefore there may be fewer workers compensation claims," she says.
The reduction in claims that her study points could be "one potential benefit" of full legalization, at least from a workplace standpoint. But that the costs still need to be weighed too — there's still controversial evidence that states with legal weed policies could have more traffic accidents.
For now, the study provides a small glimpse into the way legal marijuana policies could change life in ways we're not expecting. Marijuana's medical potential won't just change the way scientists study it in labs, it could change the way we go about our jobs too.
Abstract: We study the effect of state medical marijuana laws (MMLs) on workers' compensation (WC) claiming among adults. Medical marijuana is plausibly related to WC claiming by allowing improved symptom management, and thus reduced need for the benefit, among injured or ill workers. We use data on claiming drawn from the Annual Social and Economic supplement to the Current Population Survey over the period 1989 to 2012, coupled with a differences-in-differences design to provide the first evidence on this relation- ship. Our estimates show that, post MML, WC claiming declines, both the propensity to claim and the level of income from WC. These findings suggest that medical marijuana can allow workers to better manage symptoms associ- ated with workplace injuries and illnesses and, in turn, reduce need for WC. However, the reductions in WC claiming post MML are very modest in size.