Hoppy Kercheval, Opinion

Employment conundrum: greater marijuana use

America is slowly, but inevitably, moving toward legalization of marijuana. Recreational use of cannabis is legal in 18 states and Washington, D.C. Thirty-seven states, including West Virginia, allow marijuana use for medicinal purposes.

A Gallup Poll released last year found the most support ever for legalization. Sixty-eight percent of Americans questioned say pot should be legal. Congress is considering a bill that would remove marijuana from the federal list of prohibited drugs.

These changes do not happen in a vacuum. Legalization and greater social acceptance mean increased use by individuals in the workplace. “The percentage of working Americans testing positive for drugs hit a two-decade high last year, driven by an increase in positive tests for marijuana, as businesses might have loosened screening policies amid nationwide labor shortages,” the Wall Street Journal reported.

According to the Journal, Quest Diagnostics Inc., one of the largest drug-testing laboratories, determined that 4% of marijuana screenings conducted by the company last year came back positive. Positive tests for pot are up 8% since 2020 and 50% since 2017, before many states began to legalize marijuana.

Employers face a conundrum. They are struggling to fill vacancies and a positive drug test may result in a dismissal and reduces the pool of applicants. In states where marijuana is legal, some employers have simply abandoned testing for THC, the active ingredient in cannabis.

However, an employee who is high on the job may pose a risk to himself and others. The CDC reports, “Recent marijuana use (defined as within 24 hours) in youth and adults has immediate impact on thinking, attention, memory, coordination, movement and time perception.”

Drug tests detect THC, but the results can be misleading. The effects of smoking a joint or ingesting an edible will wear off in a few hours, but remnants of the drug will remain in the system from a few days to a month.

Rebecca McPhail, president of the West Virginia Manufacturer’s Association, said her members are concerned that legalization would increase use at a time when businesses are already having trouble finding workers. “What we are really struggling to come to terms with is how to adequately measure impairment as it relates to workplace accidents and injuries,” she said.

Steve Roberts, president of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, said that increasingly employers are offering assistance plans to help workers when they fail a drug test, but others just don’t want to know. “Employers with low risk jobs sometimes just have a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy.”

Mike Clowser, executive director of Contractors Association of West Virginia, said drug testing, which is necessary for many of their members, frequently trims the pool of potential workers.

“Our members do note that about 25% to 30%  of the people they offer a job to do not show up for the pre-employment drug test,” Clowser said. “This can, however, be for various reasons — a person accepted a job with another company, they decide they don’t want the position, etc. A deeper dive would be required to determine if the possible failure of a drug test is the reason they did not show up for the test.”

The CDC’s most recent statistics indicate that about 48 million people, or 18% of Americans, used marijuana in 2019. Those numbers are going to rise as more states remove criminal penalties.

Meanwhile, employers are still adjusting, trying to find a reasonable balance between attracting and retaining workers and maintaining a safe work environment.

Hoppy Kercheval is a MetroNews anchor and the longtime host of “Talkline.” Contact him at hoppy.kercheval@wvradio.com.