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Opinion: Test applicants for marijuana? Maybe or maybe not

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The sales and marketing machine for the medical use of cannabis rolled into Missouri in the last month. This year and next will bring cannabis retail stores and new state laws.

This has led to concerns among human resources managers, business owners and those responsible for the safety of all employees about testing job applicants for marijuana use. What was a standard new-hire requirement now asks a bigger question: “If we test all applicants for marijuana, especially for jobs we have a hard time filling, will we limit our supply of potential employees?” As a colleague who owns a ski shop in Vail, Colorado, once told me, “If I tested my job applicants for pot, I wouldn’t have any employees.”

Marijuana is still classified by the federal government as a dangerous Schedule 1 drug despite pot enthusiasts’ claims that the drug in its many forms – flower, tincture, oils, edibles, etc. – will cure or lessen the impact of many diseases. Taking it from the mouth of the Drug Enforcement Administration: “It has no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” Because the feds say marijuana is still an illegal drug, employers still have the right to test for THC – the psychoactive part of the marijuana plant that causes people to feel high.

Most public-sector agencies or private companies that test their employees also screen for alcohol, cocaine, methamphetamine, opiates, ecstasy and PCP. Unlike alcohol, which has a national standard of impairment at 0.08 blood alcohol level, marijuana impairment is not standardized at a specific measurable level. Pot proponents argue that since a drinker is fully detoxed from alcohol within eight to 12 hours – depending on the quantity consumed, body weight and liver health – a pot user consuming THC can still test positive 10 to 35 days later.

The arguments go something like: Why should my employer care if I legally purchase and use cannabis products if it doesn’t affect my work performance or behavior? Surely you can’t say I’m impaired if I smoke pot on Friday night and come to work on Monday morning and fail a drug test because you find a small amount of THC?

Drug and alcohol tests by type include pre-employment, post-accident with suspicion, reasonable suspicion and for safety-sensitive employees. Pre-employment drug testing must be done for all applicants applying for the same position, so there’s no spot-checking of only certain applicants. Per recent Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidelines, employees who get into an accident can only be tested when it’s reasonably suspected drugs or alcohol were a causative factor.

The reasonable suspicion guidelines most employers follow include direct observation of use by the employee, or in possession of alcohol, drugs or drug paraphernalia; performance, behavior, appearance, attendance or conflict issues that a “reasonable supervisor” (preferably who has received training) would suspect the employee is impaired; seeing physical, objective symptoms of drug or alcohol use; or smelling the odor of alcohol or marijuana on the employee.

Safety-sensitive employees are either deemed that way by their employer based on their work (i.e. police, fire, pilots and train operators), or by the federal government standard, where the employee holds a commercial motor vehicle license and is subject to strict Department of Transportation prohibitions about drug or alcohol use while at work or on call. Safety-sensitive employees can be tested randomly, while others cannot.

Angela Garrison, president of Tomo Drug Testing in Springfield, says, “As employers enter into increasingly complex times with the legalization of medicinal marijuana, it’s critical that safety be the guide when making choices about drug testing. Every employee deserves to work in a safe environment; therefore, it’s important all employees working in safety-sensitive positions, federally mandated or not, are able to perform those duties in a constant state of alertness to ensure the safety of themselves and those around them. Regular drug testing, including testing for THC, should be a part of employers’ safety efforts.”

With marijuana legal for recreational use in 15 states and Washington, D.C., and for medical use in another 20 states, the green wave is here. It’s leaving many employers confused about their rights to test applicants or even current employees.

Where does your company or agency stand? Will you continue to test applicants for marijuana use? Test applicants for alcohol and the other testable drugs, but not pot? Or stop testing for drugs and alcohol altogether, unless you have reasonable suspicion or safety-sensitive employees? Talk it over with your HR professional or labor law attorney, update and follow your written policies, and make an informed decision that will benefit your business, your employees and your customers.

Steve Albrecht is a Springfield-based trainer, human resources consultant and employee coach. He can be reached at drsteve@drstevealbrecht.com.

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