Should job seekers be penalized for personal-time use of cannabis?

Many companies and job applicants are confused about marijuana, and how legalization affects their jobs.
(Elizabeth Earl / AP)

As an HR professional, I’m a member of a national nonprofit organization called the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM). They offer lots of advice on lots of HR topics. One of them is cannabis at the workplace.

Those of us in California who deal daily with the complex issues of hiring and maintaining a productive and safe workplace have had one more log added to our fire.

Lately we’ve been dealing with the question of how or whether to test for marijuana in the workplace. With the legal green light given for recreational and/or medicinal use in the form of CBD, many companies and job applicants are confused about cannabis, the more widely accepted term for marijuana, and how legalization affects their jobs.

Given that recreational cannabis is now legal in California -- a total of 33 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws broadly legalizing cannabis in some form – do employers have the right to conduct such drug tests?

Yes, as an employer, I can declare my workplace drug and alcohol free, and I don’t need to justify it to anyone. As an applicant, failing a drug test can deny you a good job. As an employee, failing a drug test can get you fired on the spot.

And yes, as of now, this applies to doctor-directed medicinal cannabis. It may be tested in courts, but for now if you fail the drug test for any reason, you can be legally fired.

Which reminds me: I had to smile when I saw this sign outside a local Stanley Steamer recruiting booth: “If you use drugs, don’t bother walking through this door.”

This non-nonsense stance is much different from the “ban the box” legislation. Employers are not compelled to prove that being high is relevant to the job duties. You have to pass the employer’s drug test to move to the job-offer stage. And once employed, if you fail a random drug test, you will be escorted out of the building.

Traces can remain detectable for two weeks or longer

While the effects of cannabis usually wear off within hours, traces can remain detectable in a urine sample for two weeks or longer, depending on amount and frequency of use. In a hair sample, it can be detected for up to six months. Employers select the drug test they think is most relevant.

According to a recent study published by JAMA, the Journal of American Medical Association, individuals who test positive for cannabis have 55 percent more industrial accidents. Plus, they have 85 percent more injuries and 75 percent more absenteeism.

As SHRM points out, however, other studies seem to indicate that non-workplace use of cannabis does not have a measurable negative effect on employees’ on-the-job performance or reliability. So if your job involves driving a fork lift, having cannabis in your system is much more of an issue than if you have a desk job.

Another factor: There’s little consensus about how much detectable THC – the psychoactive element in cannabis – proves that a person is impaired. By contrast, the impairment time frame is more clearly defined with alcohol.

Best initial course of action is to post a list

For employers, perhaps the best initial course of action is to post a clear list of workplace regulations regarding alcohol and cannabis use.

SHMR offers these suggestions:

· Don’t tolerate cannabis use on the job, just as you wouldn’t tolerate alcohol use.

· Train managers to spot signs of impairment.

· Think carefully about the type of test your company uses and stay on top of developments in the technology of testing.

· Know relevant state laws before setting policies and testing rules.

· For companies operating in different states, know that testing policies may vary by location.

· At first-day orientation and going forward, educate employees about the company marijuana-use policy and the repercussions for failed tests, including random, post-accident or reasonable-suspicion tests.

As for employees, while cannabis use may be legal here in California, my advice would be this: Know your company’s policy. Don’t risk losing your job trying to game the system. Is it really worth losing your job?

Blair, co-founder of Manpower San Diego and author of “Job Won;”

Twitter: @PhilManpowerSD