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Stirring the Pot: What Planners Need to Know About Marijuana Liability

While it may seem far-fetched to think pot-smoking attendees could be a legal concern, industry attorney Joshua Grimes says it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Now that recreational use of marijuana is legal in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, California, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, and Washington, D.C., meeting hosts need to develop a policy around pot use at their events.

In fact, says meetings industry attorney Joshua Grimes, Esq., Grimes Law Offices, the availability and acceptability of pot among attendees has risen to the point where now, even if you’re not meeting in a state that has legalized recreational use of the substance, you still need to have a policy and plan in place.

What makes you think that the time has come for planners to put pot on their liability watch list?
Grimes: Some people may think I’m out there for considering this an area planners need to address, but with more states decriminalizing or legalizing recreational marijuana use, it’s becoming more acceptable and being used much more openly. Younger attendees are coming of age in an era where pot use isn’t something that needs to be hidden. And those who come from a state where it is legal may come to your meeting in a state where it is not without fully appreciating that fact. The attitudes toward pot are changing, and that could lead to liability for hosts and planners if they don’t take appropriate precautions.

There are even “marijuana concierges” that are promoting their services—bringing pot to an event—to meetings. While they are mostly targeting social events like weddings now, they also market to the meetings industry, and it’s just a matter of time before some meetings start using them.

Every state is different, but it now has become something planners have to deal with, especially if their meeting is in a state where recreation marijuana use is legal. We don’t have clear-cut standards for use and possession even in those states, beyond the common parameters that people are allowed to have one ounce or less for private consumption, the person has to be at least 21 years of age, and they have to purchase the weed from an authorized dealer.

Smoking anything indoors is illegal in most states now, and many prohibit pot use in public spaces, but edible forms like pot brownies could easily, and in some states legally, be brought into a private conference space. Planners and meeting hosts need to be prepared for the potential for an attendee to get high on brownies [at an event] then get hurt, cause damage, or hurt others. While I don’t know if a lawsuit would be successful or if you would be definitively liable, the meeting host and meeting planner would probably be named in a lawsuit if they knew what was going on.

What are the potential concerns regarding insurance?
Grimes: If someone gets high and gets hurt, there could be issues with your coverage. I suggest taking precautions, especially in cases where someone who ingests marijuana might get into a car and drive, or operate machinery, or participate in a sporting event—anything that could be hazardous if not done correctly.

I don’t know if insurance companies are asking for it yet, but especially in states where recreational use is legal, I would include in an activity waiver that the person is not under the influence of alcohol or any other substance that could interfere with their ability to do the activity. You have to remind people of the risks and ask that if they’re doing certain things that they not participate.

If there were to be widespread marijuana use at your event and you do not disclose that fact to your insurance company, they could disclaim coverage.

How should planners address the pot issue?
Grimes: Whether your meeting is in a state that has legalized recreational pot use or not, I would suggest that you develop a policy for pot similar to your alcohol policy. Publish that policy on your website and in your meeting materials so it’s clear that this is an established policy, not an ad hoc one-off. If you have on-site security, ask them to look out for marijuana use.

I suspect that most planners won’t be bringing in a marijuana concierge or making weed an official offering at their programs, but if you do, you have to treat it as you would alcohol with a formal policy.

Even if you do not, you do need to be prepared, again, just as you are for alcohol use. What would your liability be if someone brought a flask to your reception, got intoxicated, then got in a car and killed someone? If that flask were pot brownies, the same principles apply in terms of limiting liability for the damages attendees could cause to themselves or others.

And inform attendees about parameters for what I call “responsible use.” Say, “Welcome to Colorado! We’re glad you came to the meeting. Our policy is no marijuana is allowed at our social events.” Or “Yes, it’s allowed, but it can only be used at certain events in certain areas.”

What about meetings held in states where recreational use is not legalized or decriminalized?
Grimes: We’ve gotten to the point where you should spell it out in your meeting materials that, in the case of this meeting, marijuana use is not permitted in any of your events or in your meeting locations.

Would I have said that five years ago? No. But marijuana use is so much more prevalent and acceptable now that I do think it’s necessary to have and disseminate a policy, regardless of where the meeting is held.

I also believe it’s just a matter of time before pot starts becoming integrated into some meetings in an official way—it’s just a matter of time. Everyone’s looking for something new and different to offer, and I think this is only going to increase in frequency and acceptability.

The only uncertainty I see is that U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has talked about setting a national standard for marijuana use that would challenge states’ ability to independently legalize pot. If that happens, it could slow or even reverse the legalization trends.

We’ll have to wait and see—this issue is evolving. In the meantime, planners need to be prepared for the current reality in terms of legal liability.

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