R.I. businesses wary of legalizing marijuana

Gov. Gina M. Raimondo sees millions of dollars in new state revenue from legalizing recreational marijuana use but business owners don’t want it to come with restrictions on how they hire or ensure workplace safety, according to the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce.

The Chamber is lobbying for tweaks to Raimondo’s budget proposal to ensure businesses can continue to test prospective employees for marijuana use outside of the workplace and ban the use, sale or possession of the drug in the workplace.

Raimondo says the expanded marijuana program would be one of the most regulated in the country, creating an Office of Cannabis Regulation within the R.I. Department of Business Regulation to “safeguard public health, maintain public safety and prevent youth access.”

But Chamber President Laurie White said construction, health care and manufacturing businesses are particularly concerned about “impairment on the job.”

- Advertisement -

Indeed, Steven Hoffman, chairman of the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission, warned Rhode Island businesspeople during a March 19 Chamber meeting that employers’ rights should be sorted out before recreational marijuana use is approved. It wasn’t addressed before recreational marijuana was passed in Massachusetts in 2016, he says.

Hoffman recounted how a Massachusetts woman who had state approval for medicinal marijuana was fired when she tested positive for marijuana use. “It’s absolutely the right of the employer to do so, but we got tremendous amount of pushback on this,” he said. Now state legislation has been filed to prevent employers from firing card-carrying, medical-marijuana users.

“We’re dealing with it a year and a half after we launched,” Hoffman said. “Get ahead of it, if you can, because it’s going to be an issue.”

Actually, it already has been an issue locally.

An R.I. Superior Court ruling in 2017 said that a Westerly fabrics company violated the state’s medical-marijuana law when it refused to hire a paid intern who had a doctor’s permission to use the drug to treat migraine headaches. The ruling has been appealed to the state Supreme Court.

That case, in part, has fueled fears in the business community that employers’ rights could be eroded further under legalized recreational marijuana, White said.

Raimondo’s office could not be immediately reached for comment. Her budget proposal, which also expands medical-marijuana use, includes $6.5 million in anticipated new revenue from marijuana sales in fiscal 2020.

Attorney Mark Freel, a longtime board member of the Rhode Island Manufacturers Association, said at the March 19 Chamber event manufacturers are worried about employees coming to work impaired by marijuana use and operating machinery.

“We’re really concerned … whether or not there’s going to be adequate protections to allow employers to enforce safety in the workplace,” Freel told Hoffman.

William Hamilton is special projects editor at PBN. Contact him at Hamilton@PBN.com.


  1. Employers who perform work on or manufacture products used in the aviation industry (and others that are Federally regulated) must be able to test employees and insist on a drug-free workplace. Any bill that fails to protect these employers will do significant harm to Rhode Island’s economy, as those suppliers will be forced to take their business elsewhere, where they can be assured that employees working on aircraft parts aren’t under the influence.