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Legal cannabis poses problems for US companies screening staff for drugs



(Reuters) — Workers at Wyatt Bassett’s furniture factory in Virginia use powerful tools to remove the company’s trademark cabinets and headboards, making it easy to screen new hires for drugs.

Or it used to be.

Virginia fully legalized marijuana last year — the first state in the South to do so. The upshot is that “testing positive for cannabis doesn’t necessarily disqualify you for employment,” says Mr. Bassett, CEO of Vaughan-Bassett Furniture Co., which has 575 employees.

On Thursday, President Joe Biden issued an executive order aimed at reshaping how the federal government deals with cannabis.

The change in policy should help many businesses. Faced with a shortage of applicants, employers across the U.S. are balancing pressure to ease testing for a legal drug with concerns that it could affect safety and raise liability issues.

The US unemployment rate ticked up to 3.7% last month, but it remains near the lowest level in five decades.

“With the war for talent and labor shortages, especially in some lower-paying jobs, it̵

7;s hard to find and keep people — so many decide not to test, except for security-sensitive jobs,” said Julie Schweber, a senior skills advisor at the Society for Human Resource Management. Companies with multiple operations in different parts of the country face an extra challenge, she said, because laws differ from state to state.

Biden’s order on Thursday grants a pardon for all prior federal offenses of simple possession of marijuana. He also announced an overhaul of how cannabis is “scheduled,” or classified, under federal law. The current schedule places it in the same class as heroin and LSD and in a higher classification than fentanyl and methamphetamine.

The challenge of balancing workplace safety and the growing availability – and legalization – of certain types of drugs is particularly acute for manufacturers and others who use hazardous equipment.

Last June, Amazon.com Inc. said that testing positive for marijuana use would no longer disqualify people from jobs not regulated by the U.S. Department of Transportation, such as truck drivers.

The e-commerce giant – like many other employers – said it will treat cannabis like alcohol, even though traces of its use remain in the human body much longer and can show up on certain types of tests after a worker is no longer impaired by its use. “We will continue to do on-the-job impairment checks and will test for all drugs and alcohol after each incident,” former CEO Dave Clark wrote in a blog post at the time of the announcement.

Data from Quest Diagnostics, which handles testing for businesses, shows a steady increase in positivity rates for marijuana tests over the past decade — coinciding with the wave of legalization. In 2012, only 1.9% of workers not subject to federally mandated drug testing requirements failed a pre-employment screening. Last year it had grown to 4.1 percent. The jump in positive tests after accidents increased even more during that period, up from 2.4% to 6.7%.

The majority of Fortune 1000 companies have some type of screening in place, but many companies are removing cannabis testing from the list, said Barry Sample, a senior science consultant who compiles Quest’s data. Quest still estimates that between 30 million and 35 million employment-related drug tests are conducted in the United States annually.

Most of the tests Quest conducts use urine samples. Other tests rely on swabbing saliva or hair samples. “None of these tests can tell if someone is impaired,” said Mr. Sample. Rather, the tests will simply indicate the presence of the drug based on a preset threshold.

Medical cannabis use is now legal in 37 states, while recreational use is legal in 19. Quest’s data also shows that states that allow recreational cannabis use have higher positivity rates.

Mr. Sample said many employers are shifting screening efforts to focus on drugs that remain illegal and where use in some industries is also on the rise. In manufacturing, for example, Quest found that positivity rates increased last year for both methamphetamine and cocaine.

Insurance experts say it’s too early to tell whether the changes will drive up insurance rates for companies that stop testing. “Nobody’s going to go out and say, ‘We’re raising premiums because you have more stoned workers on the job,'” said Mark Pew, a consultant who specializes in workers’ compensation insurance in Georgia. But if, over time, companies that have looser policies because drug screening has higher accident rates than those who adhere to stricter rules, that could change, he said.

Matt Zender, senior vice president of workers’ compensation strategy at AmTrust Financial Services Inc., said one factor that could obscure or offset the effect of more drug use on the job is the general move toward safer workplaces.

“If you just look at claims per 100 hours of work, overall people are getting injured less often than they were before,” he said.

At the same time, companies continue to fine-tune their approach to the issue. A California plastic bag manufacturer, contacted by Reuters about its drug screening policy, was surprised to learn that its human resources department automatically rejected applicants who tested positive for cannabis.

“My nephew would never get a job if I forced it on him,” Kevin Kelly, CEO of Emerald Packaging Inc. in Union City, Calif., said in an email. He said he had now directed his hiring managers to drop the demand, adding that workers at the factory are not allowed to be reduced on the job. Cannabis use is completely legal in California.


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