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Guest Column: It’s time to rethink workplace drug testing

BY Roberta F. King, co-owner of Canna Communication LLC Sunday, April 08, 2018 08:14pm

Editor’s note: Last month, the board of directors at the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce came out in opposition to a ballot initiative to legalize adult recreational use of marijuana in Michigan. In a statement, the Chamber said it was concerned about the negative impacts” of the proposal, specifically around employers’ ability to find qualified talent. In this guest column, Canna Communications co-owner Roberta King outlines her perspective about why employers should start thinking differently about workplace drug screening.

With Michigan voters set to consider a ballot proposal this November that would legalize adult-use marijuana, it’s important to note that people on both sides of the issue agree on one thing: People shouldn’t come to work impaired.

It really doesn’t matter if a worker is under the influence of alcohol, marijuana, certain prescription drugs like an opioid or other substances like cocaine or amphetamines — impaired judgment causes accidents and mistakes. These errors can cost a company money and cost an employee his or her job.

However, the initiative has exposed a key difference between legalization advocates and some traditional business groups. That includes the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, which recently spoke out against the initiative, citing concerns over how the measure would affect employers as well as limit the availability of the workforce.

But legalizing adult-use marijuana doesn’t have to limit the workforce. Rather, it just requires companies to change their thinking.

American companies have a history of workplace drug testing that dates back to the Reagan administration in 1988 with the Drug-Free Workplace Act. Not much has changed since that time, not the testing methodology or employers’ views on drug testing.

Despite companies wanting to keep up with progressive HR policies like flexible schedules, remote working, mandated time off, sabbaticals, maternity/paternity leave and partner benefits, most workplaces haven’t come to terms with the outdated idea of a urine test for detecting drugs.

Imagine if you worked for a place that was still following processes and procedures from 30 years ago. Back in the 1980s, we were a country that was solidly against marijuana. DARE was in its heyday and so were PSAs about your brain on drugs. 

Public opinion is changing about marijuana and the substance or its derivatives are now legal in some form in 29 states and Washington, D.C. About 95 percent of the American population lives in a state where there is some form of legal marijuana. Much of the change has been driven by citizens through ballot initiatives.

According to the Pew Research Center, 16 percent of Americans thought marijuana should be legal in 1988. That compares to 61 percent of people in 2018. In the millennial workforce, 70 percent of people today think marijuana should be legal.

It’s no wonder there’s a gap between employers and the young talent they so deeply desire.

Pre-employment drug tests are not a Michigan or federal requirement unless you work in several very specific areas like transportation, aviation, energy and those businesses that contract with the federal government.

Drug testing is a choice that all companies make.

Most companies will say that workplace drug testing is done for safety reasons, that employees under the influence of drugs or alcohol cause accidents. Most people would agree that no one should be at work while using alcohol or drugs. But if you search for the causes of workplace accidents and injuries, you won’t find much about drug or alcohol use on any top 10 list. Lifting, slipping, fatigue, overexertion, sleepiness and stress are much more common causes of workplace accidents.

Is drug testing the best way to screen out undesirable candidates or does it keep good people from entering your workplace? Perhaps the problem lies with the test itself as much as the rationale behind it.

That’s because urine screening for drug use, especially THC (the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana), isn’t an effective indicator of present drug use.

Unlike a breathalyzer which can show the potency of alcohol in a person’s system in real time, a urine test for THC shows marijuana use as far back as 20-25 days, depending on a person’s weight, metabolic system and the sensitivity of the test.

In the event of a workplace accident and an employee’s urine sample testing positive for THC, there’s no proof that the marijuana was used a few hours before the accident or several days or even weeks ago.  

Companies should ask: “Does it matter what an employee did two weekends ago, or are we more concerned about what people do at work today?”

It appears a growing number of local companies are questioning their former practices, according to legal experts.  

“Recently, I met with a few colleagues who work in human resources here in West Michigan and we were discussing employee testing for THC,” said Robert Hendricks, a partner at CannaLex Law in Grand Rapids. “They are re-examining the value of testing current employees and those in pre-employment. It has become clear to them that due to the nature of testing, even after an accident, the results don’t speak to the current situation of the individual, and that’s troubling.

“On the hiring front, as the economy continues to improve and unemployment numbers go down, it’s becoming difficult to find candidates who can pass a marijuana drug screen and therefore it’s harder to find talent.”

According to a Bloomberg News report, workplace drug testing is seeing a measured decline especially in regard to pre-employment screening for new hires. Excellence Health, a pharmaceutical and hospital company headquartered in Las Vegas, ended testing for THC for its 6,000 employees at the start of 2018, and AutoNation, the country’s largest car dealership, won’t turn away job seekers who test positive for marijuana.

Elsewhere, Maine’s state recreational marijuana law, as of February 2018, prevents employers from testing for marijuana use.

Some of America’s largest and most successful companies have opted out of marijuana drug testing. Intel, Hewlett Packard, Google, Facebook, Twitter and Adobe (to name a few) don’t use drug tests to screen for potential employees.  

Between 45-50 million people are drug tested as a condition of employment across the U.S. It’s something we’ve done for decades and it seems to be a hard habit to break. It doesn’t hold much rational thought and the data to support the practice is weak. Random drug testing of employees doesn’t appear to make workplaces safer, nor is there research proving the practice deters marijuana use. Researcher Michael R. Frone Ph.D. wrote extensively about the topic in his book, “Alcohol and Illicit Drug Use in the Workforce and Workplace.” He believes that there is a lack of evidence that drug testing affects safety.

That lack of effectiveness and the broad shift in public opinion about marijuana suggest the Grand Rapids Area Chamber might want to reconsider its reliance on outdated assumptions about the effectiveness of marijuana testing.

Instead, its energy might be better spent by helping West Michigan businesses rewrite current marijuana testing policies and adopt best practices for talent acquisition.

 Roberta F. King the co-owner of Canna Communication, a PR and marketing agency for the cannabis industry.

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