Yes, Washington was part of the vanguard when it came to legalizing marijuana. And yes, voters in even more states might approve legalization in November for recreational use.
But if you think drug tests have fallen out of fashion in Tacoma, Olympia and elsewhere in this state, think again.
Now that the economy has improved post-recession, companies are fishing from a smaller pool of job seekers who can pass mandatory drug screenings, said Hans Kueck, an economic development specialist with Pierce County.
Testing positive for cannabis means finding 50 nanograms per milliliter of a marijuana metabolite in one’s system. That level shows the individual used a marijuana product days or weeks in the past, but it does not prove the person was high at the time of testing.
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“In all too many cases you have (potential) employees coming in, filling out an application and when they find out they need to take (a urine test) they pick up their application and they just leave,” Kueck said of area businesses’ efforts to hire new talent.
Despite relaxed pot laws and the need for workers, many businesses stick with hiring only drug-free workers for two reasons — marijuana continues to be an illegal drug under federal law and businesses fear being found liable if an employee who has an accident is found to have used pot.
Not all businesses are having trouble finding workers who can pass a drug test. For example, The Boeing Co., a federal contractor, is not having trouble filling open positions, spokesman Curtis Cartier said in an email.
For others, though, it can be a real investment in time and money.
FINDING SOMEONE WHO CAN PASS
At the staffing firm BBSI, more potential hires are failing drug tests than ever before. The firm, with three of its offices between Tacoma and Seattle, acts as a matchmaker between job-seekers and companies seeking a particular set of skills or temporary workers.
Last year, the company screened more than 3,000 people looking for work, said Steve Bevins, managing director for the offices.
Its three sites screen up to 30 job candidates a day, checking their backgrounds to see if they qualify for work.
If offered a position, candidates must pass a drug test.
Before marijuana was legalized in Washington, around one in five job candidates who were offered work at BBSI failed to pass drug tests. But these days, “well over 30 percent” fail drug tests, which look for marijuana among other drugs, including amphetamines, methadone, opiates, ecstasy and cocaine — basically any drug listed in the DEA’s list of Schedule I drugs and a couple of others.
“About 95 percent of the time it is marijuana,” Bevins said of those who test positive on a drug test. “Obviously we get a bit of meth in there and occasionally we get surprised by some other substance.”
And there are more no-shows for scheduled interviews after they learn a drug test is mandatory, Bevins said.
It takes more time and costs more money to find the same number of qualified candidates who can pass a drug screening, Bevins said.
“It affects me tremendously,” he said.
Express Employment Professionals of Olympia owner Reid Bates has similar views.
“It’s become a pretty big issue,” Bates said about prospective employees passing drug tests in the age of legal marijuana.
Bates, who also owns Express Employment offices in Centralia and Aberdeen, said his staffing agency office in Olympia has worked with 143 employers in Thurston County this year.
He said he’s aware of three undisclosed employers that have altered drug-test policies because of pot’s legal status in Washington. In other words, if a prospective employee tests positive for marijuana, that employer will ignore the results, he said.
But that’s not the case with the majority of his clients, Bates said. He works closely with manufacturers and the warehousing industry, and those industries aren’t willing to rule out pot as a nonhire decision point, he said.
As a result, the Express Employment office in Olympia has a poster in the lobby making clear that the office tests for marijuana.
Some companies are giving promising candidates more than one try at passing a drug test, said Linda Nguyen, CEO of WorkForce Central in Tacoma.
WorkForce Central has not been tracking the number of applicants testing positive for marijuana. “Our information is based on our current experience compared to historical experience and what we are hearing from our employers,” said Nguyen via email.
At least one area employer is passing along the costs of drug tests, typically up to $50, to job seekers, Nguyen said, though she declined to name the company.
A different company requires a short list of candidates to pass a drug test before conducting interviews and selecting a finalist, said Ellie Chambers Grady, director of business services and sector strategies for WorkForce Central.
Lora Butterfield, executive director of the Fife, Milton, Edgewood Chamber of Commerce, sent an informal poll this year to several of her chamber’s members.
Seven of 24 companies said they are having a more difficult time finding qualified workers who can pass a drug test, possibly because some applicants believe marijuana is no longer monitored in drug screens.
And the testing doesn’t end with hiring.
Many employers test employees after a workplace accident, Kueck said. Those who drink on a Friday and have an incident on a Monday won’t test positive for alcohol.
“That’s not the case with marijuana,” Kueck said. “The requirement is if you test positive for marijuana, you are fired if the company policy is ‘no tolerance.’ How long that will hold, I don’t know.”
Bevins of BBSI said if a worker who uses marijuana gets into a workplace accident, his company could face legal consequences. All positions are screened for drug use — no exceptions, he said.
In some instances, companies can be mellow about marijuana policies. In others, their hands are tied.
Businesses that rely on federal contracts must agree to have a drug-free workplace as a condition of receiving federal dollars.
Because of pot’s federal status as an illegal drug, many employers are reluctant to change longstanding drug-free workplace policies. Even a medical endorsement card provides no immunity, according to a recent federal court ruling.
Until marijuana’s federal status changes, many employers, including Bevins’ BBSI offices, will keep their longstanding policies.
“We are probably one of the strictest in the area,” he said. “It’s our reputation in the market.”
Providence St. Peter Hospital, the largest private employer in Thurston County with 2,300 people, has not seen an increase in those who can’t qualify for employment because of legal marijuana, said Dana Vandewege, human resources director, Southwest Washington Region.
Drug testing is standard protocol in the health care industry, so those who work in the industry are aware of what’s expected of them to be employed, she said.
Other entities, such as State Farm, do not immediately reject those who test positive for past marijuana use.
If an applicant tests positive for marijuana in a pre-employment or for-cause drug test for State Farm, “the medical director would conduct a review” before the applicant can move forward in the hiring process, wrote State Farm spokesman Brad Hilliard in an email.
State Farm did not have information to provide regarding whether it is seeing an uptick in failed drug tests among applicants.
Many small and often family owned businesses forgo the practice more common in corporate environments.
HuyTuong Vu Nguyen owns Healing Choice Chiropractic in Tacoma’s Lincoln District. It didn’t occur to him to screen his one employee, a massage therapist, for drugs.
“I never ask if they use drugs or not. I think it would be a personal issue,” he said.
Besides, he said, marijuana is legal. As long as the employees don’t come in smelling like smoke (marijuana or nicotine) and dress appropriately for his professional environment, there were no issues.
Those sentiments were echoed by Valla Wagner, co-owner of Teaching Toys and Books in Tacoma’s Proctor District. Her business has never done drug testing.
“We know our people really well. We don’t get involved in their personal lives,” Wagner said. “If there ever came a time someone came to work smelling like marijuana, we’d treat it like tobacco: ‘This is not appropriate in a children’s store.’ ”
Compass Rose, with stores in Olympia and Tacoma’s Proctor District does not drug test employees, said manager Emily Hennig, and she doubts they ever will.
Even after marijuana was legalized here, she said she saw no difference in the applicant pool.
“It really has not affected us,” Hennig said.
FoxFire Salon in Proctor is another workplace that does not drug-test employees, said owner Karin Walker and general manager Topie Griffin.
“It’s not even something I think about at the time of the interview. ‘Are they a marijuana user,’ ” Griffin said. “We are an artistic industry and I’m sure there are some who would test positive.”
Unlike many commercial enterprises, South Sound public agencies say they are not seeing a significant increase in those testing positive for marijuana.
Policies vary on who gets tested. All public agencies test those required to have a commercial drivers’ license for work, which follows federal law mandating testing for transportation employees.
It’s rare when a bus driver candidate fails a pre-employment test, said Pierce Transit spokeswoman Rebecca Japhet.
At Tacoma Public Schools, bus driver candidates must pass a drug test. Spokesman Dan Voelpel said that’s a small fraction of the district’s overall workforce.
The school district has not seen an uptick in positive drug tests, he said.
“It’s pretty well-known that anyone who works around kids has to go through a pretty extensive background check,” Voelpel said. “People with a questionable background probably don’t even apply to a lot of jobs we have at the school district.”
Teachers, on the other hand, do not have to pass pre-employment drug screenings, he said.
Nate Olson, spokesman for the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, said the agency does not collect information on whether districts test teacher hires for drugs as a condition of employment.
“A drug test isn’t necessary” to get a teaching certificate, Olson wrote in an email. “Only fingerprinting and a background check are (as well as the required education). Employment, though, is handled at the district level.”
Lifeguards for Metro Parks Tacoma don’t have to pass pre-employment tests, but are subject to random drug screenings, spokesman Michael Thompson said via email.
The city of Tacoma tests everyone offered a job. All prospective city employees are required to pass a drug test, which screens for marijuana, cocaine, opiates, phencyclidine and amphetamines.
Of 152 pre-employment physicals from the first eight months of this year, four did not pass the drug screening, said Human Resources Director Joy St. Germain in an email.
THE POT INDUSTRY
The cannabis industry might offer the best example of legalization and regulations colliding.
Emerald Leaves, a legal recreational marijuana shop on Tacoma’s Sixth Avenue, does not test employees for drugs.
“Most of our employees smoke weed,” said manager Danny Clark. “We want them to be able to describe the product.”
In fact, Clark said, it would be a “hindrance” if a potential employee did not use cannabis products, he said.
Of businesses that still test employees, “I feel like eventually that’s going to go away as more states legalize marijuana.”
On the other side is one of the clients of BBSI, whose placements, you’ll remember, need to pass a drug test.
A BBSI job posting online sought a front office worker a few months ago and offered a $16 per hour starting wage, full-time work and benefits.
The company? An unnamed recreational edible marijuana products producer.
Staff writers Rolf Boone and Debbie Cafazzo contributed to this report.
BASICS OF SCREENING Q&A
Q: What causes marijuana’s high?
A: There are several forms of THC in marijuana. The main form of THC that causes the psychoactive effect in marijuana is called delta 9 THC. After the body processes that form of THC, what remains in the body is called carboxy THC, according to Dr. Alan Shackelford, a Harvard Medical School-trained physician who founded Amarimed of Colorado, a clinic in Denver focusing on medical marijuana.
Q: How long is someone high after smoking or eating marijuana products?
A: Again it depends. A high from smoked marijuana can last a couple of hours. A high from pot brownies or other food can last for several hours. A concentrated marijuana product can make a user high for longer than a smoked product. It takes more of marijuana’s active ingredient to make daily users high.
Q: What do drug tests look for as far as marijuana is concerned?
A: Drug tests look for carboxy THC, which the body metabolizes from the high-inducing compound delta 9 THC. Users are not high because of carboxy THC in the body, it is only evidence of past marijuana use, Shackelford said. Quest Diagnostics, a lab that conducts drug tests for companies across the U.S., considers a sample positive for marijuana if it detects 50 nanograms per milliliter or more of carboxy THC.
Q: How long does evidence of marijuana use remain in the body after ingesting it?
A:It depends. People with higher body fat will retain marijuana longer, and women tend to have more body fat than men. For someone who smokes or ingests pot once a week, evidence of marijuana use can clear from the system in as few as four days, Shackelford said. For people who use marijuana daily, like many medical cannabis users, it can take several weeks to more than a month for all marijuana to clear from the system. Shackelford said infrequent marijuana users can pass a drug tests a few days after they have stopped using marijuana.
Sources: Dr. Alan Shackelford, Quest Diagnostics
OVERSEAS AND CANADA
Drug testing is not as common overseas, and some countries, including Canada and some European countries, ban random testing, citing an employee’s basic right to privacy, according to the Society for Human Resource Management, a trade group for human resources workers. The group urges caution to its membership for companies considering wholesale export of company policies outside of the United States.
Keir Vallance, an assistant professor at the University of Saskatchewan’s school of law, said testing positive on a drug test north of the border doesn’t necessarily mean the end of your career — as it could in the United States.
Marijuana use and possession remains illegal under Canadian criminal law, but medical cannabis is legal. Workers who test positive for marijuana and are using it under a doctor’s orders are likely protected by provincial or federal human rights legislation, Vallance said.
“A single positive drug test is rarely in itself cause for dismissal,” Vallance said. “The real problem with marijuana is drug tests don’t show impairment.”
Recreational marijuana users without a prescription cannot be dismissed by testing positive alone — companies must prove the worker was also impaired by marijuana use, Vallance said, which current urine and blood tests cannot do. A positive test can contribute to another reason for firing, such as misconduct, prior discipline issues or impairment on the job, Vallance said in a follow-up email.
Canada has since convened a Task Force on Marijuana Legalization and Regulation. Vallance said many Canadians expect the country to at least partially legalize pot.