The Future of Drug Testing at Work

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Pretty much anyone who consumes cannabis has at one point considered the possibility of drug testing at work. At least, unless you work in the cannabis industry. Whether you're about to land your dream job pending a negative test, or have to work under the ever-looming possibility of random tests, drug testing is a thorn in the side of many who partake. Up until now, pre-employment drug testing was nearly ubiquitous. But evidence is emerging that, thanks to legal weed, there's already been a decline the rate of drug testing at work. But how strong is that evidence, and what are its implications?

Trends in Drug Testing at Work

We already know that a lot of people like weed. Among American adults, the approval rate for legalization is 64%, and likely growing. Geography comes into play here too. Despite a limited number of states allowing adult access to cannabis, those states are home to over half the U.S. population. It's also crucial to note data from a cannabis consulting company called Enlucem that shows about one-third of adults in legalized states have used cannabis in the last month.

With so many people able to roll into their neighborhood dispensary and enjoy a joint on the weekends, employers are starting to sweat. Drug tests are expensive to purchase and process, at up to $50 each—and employers are facing higher failure rates than ever before.

The data from Quest Diagnostics is a real eye-opener. Here are some of the highlights.

  • Positive tests for marijuana rose 75% from 2013 to 2016
  • 9% of tests came back positive for marijuana in 2016
  • Colorado's average positivity rate jumped 11%
  • Washington's average positivity rate jumped 9%

The national average increase in 2016 was a mere 4%, meaning that the increases in Colorado and Washington were more than double what we saw in the rest of the country. Surprise: People who live in legal states like to smoke weed!

Employers Dropping the Drug Test

But what does this increase in cannabis use mean for employers? In short, a shrinking talent pool. People who use cannabis will simply avoid jobs that openly advertise a pre-employment drug testing requirement, and they’ll look for jobs that won't go questing into their weekend habits as a hiring condition.

On the other hand, a job search is the perfect time for a tolerance break, and some prospective employees will simply quit for a while in order to pass the drug test. From the employer's point of view, that's up to 50 bucks wasted, and neither situation has any positive ramifications.

Some Colorado employers have realized that shrinking your talent pool based on someone's weekend hobbies is a pretty bad idea. In 2016, the percentage of Colorado businesses that drug tested was 62%, down from the 77% that tested employees in 2014. It's also interesting to note that only 57% of employers in the Denver and Boulder metro regions drug tested.

The industry breakdown matters, too. The industries with the most drug-testing employers included mining, utilities, transportation, and construction. That certainly stands to reason, since impairment from drug use is definitely not desirable in dangerous occupations.

The Case of Brandon Coats

The problem is, drug testing at work doesn't tell the employer anything about whether the marijuana user was ever actually impaired on the job. Take the example of Brandon Coats. He's quadriplegic and has used a wheelchair since he was a teenager. In 2007, he started working for Dish Network, and he obtained a medical marijuana card in 2009. That didn't last long, and after quite a while of using cannabis in his off-hours, his number came up for a random drug testing at work.

Obviously, he tested positive for cannabis. And as per company policy, he was fired. But Coats didn't give up there: He decided to file a lawsuit against Dish, in which he argued that the firing was illegal since he was complying with Colorado law. Unfortunately (but unsurprisingly), the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that Dish was within their rights to fire Coats.

Despite the unfavorable ruling, the case brought up some crucial points about the efficacy of drug testing at work. Dish never accused Coats of consuming cannabis on the premises, nor of performing his job while intoxicated. They also didn't attempt to link his cannabis use to a decline in work performance. In fact, by all accounts, Coats was an excellent employee throughout his tenure.

This case shows an obvious discrepancy between the supposed role of drug testing (weeding out impaired or unproductive employees) and the actual effect it had (depriving the company of a quality worker). It's clear that this system isn't working for either the employees or the employers. Is there a better solution?

Is AlertMeter the Answer?

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Photo by: Danie Nel Photography/Shutterstock
A new product may create a much better balance of mutual respect and safety in industries where safety actually matters. People who work in dangerous environments and/or with heavy machinery certainly shouldn't be impaired on the job. But testing them for substances they use responsibly outside of work hours is a great way to build up resentment and crush the trust necessary for a functional team.

AlertMeter is a test that claims to measure actual impairment in the moment, rather than pick up on cannabis use that could have occurred up to a month prior. The system uses a 60-second test that can be taken on mobile devices. It's visually based, and in part tests your ability to differentiate between shapes.

The main draw is that as long as employees are coming to work sober and alert enough to perform their jobs properly, they don't need to worry about the invasiveness of drug testing at work.

Of course, an employer could go hog wild with this tech and use it to test impairment morning, noon, and before you get off work... But it's more likely to be used in more reasonable ways. If a job is dangerous on the daily, like mining, it makes sense to test workers every day. But for other industries, you could keep the test on hand for when someone is acting potentially impaired, or before a particularly dangerous project.

The Future of Workplace Drug Testing

The way things are going now, it seems that drug testing at work or as a requirement for employment may be on the way out. With unemployment currently hovering around 4%, employers are going to have to make some concessions if they want to attract the best candidates.

AutoNation, the country's largest chain of auto dealers, has taken a bold step in saying they won't turn down job applicants just because they test positive for marijuana. The drug screenings still happen, but this company is willing to turn a blind eye if the results only turn up pot, rather than something more dangerous.

An even more daring measure has been undertaken by Maine. As of February 1st, employers are required not to drug test applicants for cannabis. The measure also stipulates that employees 21 and over can't be fired for using cannabis outside of their workplace.

It's difficult to tell just how the political climate will develop around cannabis, but as more and more states legalize, we're likely to see more of these laws and more employers throwing out workplace drug testing. And it's about time!