Employment test for marijuana use questioned

Bill 5517 would update current state law

By Brooklynn Hillemann

WNPA News Service

OLYMPIA — Washington state marijuana users won’t face losing their job over a positive drug test if a proposal under consideration in the state Legislature wins approval.

SB 5517 would update the Washington law that currently allows employers to turn away job applicants and fire employees for testing positive for marijuana use in drug screenings.

The prime sponsor of the bill, Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Des Moines, said current employment laws must be reformed to accommodate recreational legalization of the drug.

“The war on drugs has had a really negative impact on so many communities,” she said. “Part of that has been almost universal approaches to drug testing.”

Keiser’s bill had a Jan. 19 public hearing before the Senate Committee of Labor, Commerce & Tribal Affairs, with attendees voicing a mix of opposition and support.

Initiative 502 legalized recreational use of marijuana for Washington adults in 2012, making Washington one of the first states to do so. However, the state has maintained employers are allowed to base employment decisions on the results of screening tests.

Certain exceptions outlined in the bill will allow employers to retain the right to screen if they create “drug-free workplaces.” Such workplaces must have written policies, educate employees and train supervisors on the business’s drug-use tolerance. In addition, federal employees will still be subject to testing due to inconsistencies at the state and national level for the legalization of the drug.

Proponents of the bill argue a change in policy is needed because drug screenings measure exposure to the drug rather than impairment.

“If we can come up with a good way to measure impairment, that’s one thing, but these sorts of pre-employment screenings are about controlling behavior when we’re not at work,” Micah Sherman, a representative for Washington Sun and Craft Growers Association, said.

According to the CDC, urine tests can detect marijuana in the system anywhere from 3 to 30 days after use. Hair tests are the most sensitive, detecting THC for up to 90 days after use.

“[Tests] only measure whether you’ve had exposure to marijuana or cannabis in the last couple of weeks,” Keiser said. “It does not connect directly to on-the-job performance.”

Opponents of the bill argue weakening drug-screening regulations will lead to more workplace accidents, with the liability falling on employers.

“We’d say until a better test is available, we should err on the side of safety, particularly in high-hazard industries of construction, agriculture and others,” said Tom Kwieciak, representing the Building Industry Association of Washington.