Workplace drug testing evolving in the age of legalized marijuana |

Workplace drug testing evolving in the age of legalized marijuana

Employers who implement drug testing policies face new challenges, especially in states where recreational marijuana has become legal and staggering new positivity results are being reported.
Brandon Evans / |

For the first time in a decade, employees are testing positive for marijuana at a higher rate nationwide, especially in Colorado.

According to Jenny Dudikoff, a spokeswoman for Quest Diagnostics, positive testing for marijuana for regularly tested employees in Colorado increased by 20 percent. The growth was even greater in Washington, the only other state to have legalized recreational use. Employees there showed a 23 percent increase.

Quest is a workplace drug testing service. It analyzes employees for a wide range of substances using several methods, including urine, spit and hair. But the increased marijuana results were not limited to so-called green states. Nationwide, Quest found a 6.2 increase in marijuana use.

“Washington and Colorado are believed by many to foreshadow future trends in recreational marijuana use,” said Barry Sample, Quest’s director of science and technology. “While Quest’s drug testing index shows dramatic spikes in marijuana positivity rates over the past year, a longer view of the data suggests a more complex picture.”

Sample admits legalization of recreational marijuana might not be the reason for the spike in usage.

“It is possible that relaxed societal views of marijuana use in those two states, relative to others, may in part be responsible for the recent increase in positivity rates,” he said. “Yet, this doesn’t explain why both states also experienced steep rises and declines in positivity in recent years. We will be very interested to see how our data evolves over the next year or two in these two states relative to those that have not legalized so-called recreational marijuana.”

Even residing in a state where recreational marijuana is legal does not ensure protection.

“Employers generally have the authority to restrict recreational use of marijuana by employees and impose sanctions, including termination, on employees with positive drug tests in all 50 states,” Sample added.

This is an issue public and private employers in Colorado and Washington are currently sorting through.

“Is it proper for employers to say their employees can’t use it?” asked Bill Kirchoff, a municipal adviser from Coronado, California. “My concern is how we deal with employees in the workplace where marijuana is no longer a criminal issue.”

Kirchoff was one of several panelists on hand recently when the International City/County Management Association held a forum titled “What Marijuana Legalization Means for Colorado’s Local Communities and Local Governments.”

Most of the panelists felt that in those states where recreational marijuana use is now legal, the best thing to do is adapt to the cultural shift.

“It has been a major cultural change in our workplace,” said Daren Atteberry, Fort Collins city manager. “For example, our police department is used to treating it as a crime. Now they have to take to a more regulatory approach … I might have a clerk who has strong feelings against marijuana use but now has to deal directly with marijuana businesses at work. It’s just about each employer trying to find best practices in dealing with these issues … It feels like a very simple matter, but it’s not.”

“It’s a huge cultural change,” Kirchoff added. “Many employers have drug policies in place that date back to the 1980s and have a zero-tolerance policy. This is a new realm in labor policy.”

He’s found some companies changed their policies in order to find top employees.

“Ironically, especially in the tech industry, a lot of employers are already scrapping those old drug policies,” Kirchoff added. “These employers are finding they are having trouble recruiting the best talent available if they keep those old drug testing policies regarding marijuana in place.”

But even though some drug-testing policies are being updated to exclude marijuana, common sense remains in place.

“Even though we don’t test for marijuana if you show up high at the workplace that is still grounds for termination,” said Jane Brautigam, Boulder city manager. “It’s the same as if you come to work intoxicated on alcohol. Substance abuse is still not tolerated in the workplace.”

Interestingly, despite marijuana legalization in some states, another substance boasted the biggest increase among the 8.5 million Americans tested by Quest in the past year. Amphetamines, a class of central nervous system stimulants that includes drugs ranging from methamphetamine to prescription medication for ADHD, showed a 10 percent increase nationwide (compared to 6.2 for marijuana) from 2012 to 2013. It represented the highest percentage of amphetamine use on record and the highest methamphetamine testing rates since 2007.

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