Over the past few years, almost half of all states have legalized marijuana use for either medical or recreational purposes. The substance is still classified as a Schedule I controlled substance under federal law, causing confusion among human resource departments who use drug testing as part of their employee screening process. Further, research has shown that drug test positivity rates have risen for the first time in a decade, causing many employers to wonder how these trends will impact their hiring processes and company policies.
Positive drug tests on the rise
Lawmakers across the country have slowly begun to consider the legalization of cannabis, both for medical and recreational purposes. According to Pew Research Center, four states – Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska – have passed measures to legalize use of the substance for recreational purposes. Further, 23 states and the District of Columbia allow residents to use marijuana for medical reasons when prescribed by a physician. The prevalence of positive workforce drug tests has increased drastically in these states, but it is also on the rise in other parts of the nation where the substance is still prohibited.
“The prevalence of cannabis in drug tests increased by 6.2 percent nationally in 2013.”
Every year, Quest Diagnostics analyzes millions of drug test results from all over the country. The results of their 2013 Drug Testing Index showed a relative increase in positive results of 5.7 percent. Marijuana was the most commonly detected drug in these tests, and its prevalence increased by 6.2 percent nationally. This is the first time that the positivity rate has increased since 2003.
“After years of declines, the prevalence of positive workforce drug tests is increasing,” Barry Sample, Ph.D., director of science and technology at Quest Diagnostics Employer Solutions, said in a press release. “This increase indicates that employers should be aware of the potential for drug use by their workers and the risk that represents for the health and safety of their employees and the public.”
The levels of detected drug use were much higher in those states that have legalized the recreational use of cannabis, as many experts expected. The positivity rates specific to Washington and Colorado rose 20 and 23 percent, respectively. However, the researchers noted that while these states have legalized the drug, the federal government has not. This means that employers generally have the authority to restrict the use of the substance by employees.
Impact on drug screening
These trends in positivity rates, especially in states that have not legalized cannabis, have led many employers to implement drug screening for potential hires and existing employees. In regions where the drug is still illegal, companies can follow standard screening processes. However, things are a little more complicated in states like Colorado and Washington.
Forbes magazine explained that employers in states where marijuana is legalized, either for medical or recreational use, can still conduct drug tests, but they must be careful to comply with state regulations. Some jurisdictions have legislation governing random tests for existing employees, and others only allow screening in the aftermath of property damage or injury.
In four states where medical use of marijuana is legalized – Arizona, Delaware, Illinois and Minnesota – human resources cannot make any employment decision on the sole basis of a positive drug test. The company must note reasonable suspicion of impairment before taking disciplinary action. This means that businesses cannot have a zero-tolerance policy governed solely on the results of drug screening.
Employers in other jurisdictions with legislation on cannabis use should still use caution when drafting a zero-tolerance policy. Forbes noted that companies should communicate their expectations to employees, including any federally mandated rules about on-premise substance use. Businesses should also outline the consequences for positive drug screenings in writing, using state regulations as a guideline.
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