Employers Must Put Safety First in a Drug-Friendly Culture

On February 14th, 2017 the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws (NORML) issued a press release announcing the formation of a multi-state workplace drug testing coalition, serving as advocates for marijuana consumer’s rights against unfair drug testing practices in the workplace[1]. NORML is the primary spearhead organization behind the strategy to legalize cannabis in the U.S. for four decades, but it seems that culturally acceptable, readily available pot is not quite enough, the next evolution is that use must be protected. NORML considers any type of “suspicionless” drug testing to be unfair and went so far as to introduce legislation in Oregon and Washington to make testing for marijuana illegal. Both measures failed in 2017 but a return concept can be expected in the days ahead.  The press release quotes California NORML deputy director, Ellen Komp, repeating concerns of employees in marijuana-legal states, “Am I now protected against drug testing on my job?”

Why is this concerning for employers?  Why does it matter? And more provocatively, why aren’t we taking about the opioids epidemic instead of a little pot?

The NORML strategy matters because the effort to legalize marijuana, whether for ostensible medical or recreational purposes, is the tip of the iceberg in an effort to legalize all drugs. Breaking down barriers for this particular long-game has come with a tremendous amount of misdirection and false statements regarding drug-testing that now amount to urban legend in the workplace.  Causing employers to doubt their drug-testing practices has been a huge coup for pro-drug advocates, virtually undermining the federal Safe and Drug-free Workplace Act and effectively creating a national whisper campaign that has intimidated employers into backing down from safety as the priority.

When employee substance use, regardless of its stated purpose, is placed above public health and safety concerns, we have lost our way. Mountains of evidence show us that employees who report to work under-the-influence of drugs or alcohol contribute significantly to accidents, injuries, lost productivity, lost revenue and increased workers compensation claims[2]. In fact, according to the National Survey on Drug use and Health, workers who are not in a drug testing program have substance use rates 50% higher than those who are subject to mandatory drug testing. We’ve all seen the data and yet for some reason we still think “it doesn’t happen here”.  Who is really tracking the data in your company and how do you know what may or may not be impacting your bottom line?  Some employers are decreasing or eliminating workplace drug testing programs altogether because there are those who say it doesn’t work, however the evidence largely disproves this theory.

Keith Swerdfeger, owner of Swerdfeger Construction in Pueblo, Colorado has a robust company located in the heart of legal recreational marijuana territory and insists that maintaining a strong workplace drug and alcohol testing program has kept his employees from engaging in activities that would put their safety record at risk.  Likewise, Reg Rudolph who has been in the public utilities industry for 26 years in Pueblo, Colorado states, “We’ve had to make some major operational changes. Overall, from an HR perspective we’ve maintained a hard line on marijuana. So far, we’ve had no issues but we’ve been clear about our policy and interpretation.”

In order to maintain good policies, we must get the facts straight about workplace drug testing.  While wonderful new strides are being made on the horizon of oral fluid testing, which can detect very recent marijuana use, most workplaces still employ urinalysis which has a strong evidential history and is still considered the most viable option for U.S. Department of Transportation testing of safety-sensitive employees.

The largest fallacy is that one-time use of marijuana “30 days ago” will result in failed urinalyses test results. This is where the “unfair” claims are made when employees use the excuse(s) of, “I was on vacation”, “I was visiting Colorado, it’s legal there”, “I was at a birthday party and they served funny brownies” or whatever garden variety anecdote comes into play.

Regardless of the story, which is in and of itself a smokescreen, one-time use of marijuana is rarely detected in a urinalysis. The detection window must be very precise for this to occur. While it is absolutely correct that metabolized marijuana settles in the fat cells and can be detected for weeks, that primarily refers to chronic or on-going cannabis use and not a one-time puff-puff-pass. This fact matters because continued use has an effect on safety.  Marijuana that is stored in fat cells is also stored in the brain and can cause sub-acute impairment of multi-tasking motor-skills, memory function and ability to operate safely at work[3].

Any drug test that detects THC reflects behavior that does not place safety first in the workplace.  There are healthy boundaries that should be respected with mutual agreements of our highest priorities and if your company mission, vision, values and productive labor efforts are at the forefront of your workplace culture, odds are that pot use is not on the scale of importance. 

If you are struggling with the vehement arguments about the harmlessness and safety of cannabis, remember two important things. First, those who are making this argument are buying into marijuana-industry-speak that also argues cannabis is not impairing.  Think of it the same way Big Tobacco approached their infamous practices for recruiting young customers: doctors approve, not addictive, harmless. Sound familiar? It’s a playbook – a playbook that worked for decades – much to the physical harm of U.S. citizens and yet only now are we fully understanding the negative impact and actively reducing tobacco use, while on the tail-end, finding ourselves duped by the very same promotional slogans used by the cannabis industry.

Secondly, cling to safety first.  Marijuana is an impairing drug that has become substantially more potent since recreational use came into play with some products containing upwards of 60% THC. This was unheard of just five years ago. Compared to the 3% weed popular in the 1960’s-70’s the new products have been called “Green crack” and free-basing marijuana. What is really happening here is that people are using arguments for a product that no longer exists.  If we were talking about Woodstock Weed, then it is likely that “harmless” would remain an over-arching argument that could win-out. But not so in today’s market.  Extreme potencies mean longer lasting periods of impairment, higher THC content stored in the body and greater potential for abuse and addiction.  Keep that in mind when the argument presents itself that this is no big deal.  It is NOW … a very big deal.

Since when did we become comfortable with our employees working with a little buzz from last night? And why have we been pressured and bullied into looking the other way?  When a worker falls off a roof, a ladder, or down a flight of stairs do we treat that as “no big deal”?  No.  Therefore, the efforts behind safety, wellness and whole health should be equally as respected.  The night-before buzz isn’t just about pot.  It also pertains to alcohol, other illicit drugs and prescription/over-the-counter medications whether used appropriately or misused and abused.  It all flows together and relates each to the other because current U.S. culture has become boundary-averse.

Our children are not learning “no” from their parents, or while they say, “no” mom and dad are often partaking in substance use themselves, schools do not have well-funded, effective educational programs about drugs, college has become acceptable party-time and then young people land on your door-step as your new employee, often without having learned the true value of working safe and sober.  We also cannot neglect the aspect of predisposition to addiction that can be a long-standing family history, but set that on a shelf and simply look at our culture. It is, at this time, drug-friendly and that is what employers are constantly battling.

While the culture may have shifted, the lines of safety do not change. They are constant. Adolescent-type arguments of “it’s not fair” must fall on deaf ears when it comes to work-place drug and alcohol policies that place safety first.  Both the U.S. Department of Transportation and the U.S. Armed Forces model of drug-free workplace programs have achieved significant improvements in safety and productivity.

We spend too much time arguing about whether this drug or that behavior is the gateway to further drug use when at the core of those red herrings lies one truth: drugs and safety don’t mix.

At the end of the day, we are in a time where substance abuse crosses all spectrums of age, gender, race, occupation and personality type.  There are no more stereotypical drug users, there is a substance problem in the U.S. and it is a Herculean problem for the employer who allows gray space in the policies.

The Quest Diagnostics Drug Testing Index shows the greatest increase in use of all illicit drugs by U.S. employees in 12 years, based on laboratory drug test results[4]. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics drug and alcohol-related deaths in the workplace soared in 2016 with a spike of more than 30% in a single year[5].  The BLS also shows that fatal work injuries in 2016 were the highest since 2008.  These trends are not the way we want to go and robust drug testing policies as well as a work culture that enforces safety first is the path to reversal.

U.S. employers have the opportunity to not only hold the line, but have a responsibility to protect the vulnerable worker from accident or injury by those who may be under-the-influence at work. At the end of the day, do we care about our people?  Drug testing policies are not meant to be punitive or “gotcha” campaigns, they are about ensuring safety because people matter.

It is time for employers, trade associations and membership organizations that make America work, guide the way in workplace drug and alcohol testing policies for the purpose of protecting employees, customers and the general public because safety is our highest priority.

[1] http://norml.org/news/2017/02/14/norml-forms-multi-state-workplace-drug-testing-coalition

[2] The Economic Costs of alcohol and Drug Abuse in the United States, National Institute on Drug Abuse, Rockville, MD, 1992

[3] Psychomotor Function in Chronic Daily Cannabis Smokers during Sustained Abstinence, PLOS One, Bosker et al, January 2013

[4] https://www.questdiagnostics.com/home/physicians/health-trends/drug-testing

[5] https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/cfoi.pdf