How Legalizing Marijuana May Impact Employee Drug Testing

As several states like California consider the outright legalization of marijuana, many employers (and employees) wonder whether workplace drug testing will be affected. If smoking pot becomes fully legal, would an employer be less likely to conduct drug testing?

The reality is that drug testing will continue to be in place with minimal disruptions. Other mood-altering substances such as alcohol and prescription drugs are legal, but may be restricted in the workplace and tested for in accordance with company policy.

WorkforceQA’s Medical Review Officer Dr. Howard M Strickler says, “Regardless of any past or future legislative changes in marijuana policies, marijuana is an addictive, mood-altering drug, and employers should still view it as a safety concern in the workplace.”

While U.S. federal law bans the use of marijuana for any reason, to date, 14 states have legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes. In November, however, voters in California will have the option to take their state’s marijuana laws a step further. The ballot initiative, which would legalize marijuana for recreational use, is Proposition 19, or the “Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010.” Advocates of marijuana legalization argue that marijuana’s harmful effects are overstated and law enforcement resources are misused in trying to fight against a drug that doesn’t kill people.

U.S. Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske disagrees. Earlier this year, in a speech given to the California Police Chiefs’ Association Conference, Kerlikowske defended the federal ban on marijuana use. “As I’ve said from the day I was sworn in, marijuana legalization – for any purpose – is a non-starter in the Obama Administration,” Kerlikowske said. “Marijuana use is harmful. It is associated with dependence, respiratory and mental illness, poor motor performance, and cognitive impairment, among other negative effects.” In fact, each year, more employment-based drug screens are positive for marijuana than cocaine, amphetamines, methamphetamine, and heroin combined.

Regardless of whether Proposition 19 passes, the California Supreme Court has already ruled that employers reserve the right to not only set policies banning the use of marijuana among employees, but also to fire an employee for testing positive for marijuana, even if they are taking it for medicinal purposes.

The bottom line for employers is that companies have a right to expect every employee to perform his or her job safely. Since marijuana use, whether legal or illegal, is not conducive to a safe working environment, employers should approach marijuana similarly to other substances that are legal, but are not conducive to a safe working environment. Even as marijuana policies continue to evolve throughout the U.S., workplace policies restricting marijuana use should remain largely unchanged.