How cannabis actually affects productivity

New research suggests that wide availability of marijuana does indeed affect people's ability to work productively — but not in the way you're thinking.

Common sense, supported by previous research, says increased use of any intoxicant will not be good news for productivity or workplace safety. But a closer look shows that many of these findings are focused on younger workers or are driven by the presence of younger workers in the sample. Summaries may overstate the findings. For example, the National Institute on Drug Abuse says studies suggest "specific links between marijuana use and adverse consequences in the workplace, such as increased risk for injury or accidents." But the single study cited finds "it is not clear that heavy cannabis users represent a meaningful job safety risk unless using before work or on the job."
This most recent study, by authors at William Paterson University, the University of Cincinnati, Temple University, and the RAND Corporation, arrives at an opportune time. Marijuana's effects are an urgent issue now that 14 states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana, with several more likely to legalize it this year.

To find the answer, the researchers studied workers' compensation benefits received by members of that age group. What they found was striking: Annual income received from workers' compensation by this group declines by 21% after recreational marijuana is legalized. It isn't because fewer people are working; on the contrary, labor supply increases, which would suggest that workers' comp claims should rise also. Yet they fall. It seems the work capacity of those age 40 to 62 grows.
The next question is why. Pain looks like the key. Previous research has shown that when a specific chronic pain medication is removed from the market, people are less likely to work, and those who do work become more likely to take sick days. The older someone is, the more likely they are to take pain medication. This new research finds that after recreational marijuana is legalized, marijuana use (but not misuse) increases, and prescription fills for chronic pain medications decline.

The pieces of the puzzle apparently fit together. Older workers are more likely to suffer from chronic pain, which prevents some of them from working. Marijuana is useful in managing chronic pain, and while pain medications are available, they require a prescription, while recreational marijuana does not. "The ability to purchase the medication 'over the counter' may reduce hassle costs and/or stigma, which have been found to affect access in the context of other health products," the authors write. After recreational marijuana is legalized, working-age older workers are much less likely to claim workers' compensation benefits. They're better able to work productively.

The benefits extend more broadly. On average, continuing to work increases household income, overall health, and life satisfaction. Employers benefit; so does the Social Security system.

Marijuana policy is a deep issue embracing a vast array of societal benefits and costs. Amid all those pluses and minuses, this new research is a significant addition to the plus side.