Rethinking the Use of Pre-Employment Drug Tests to Weed Out Applicants

By Kathleen J. Jennings (kjj@wimlaw.com)

Last week, Illinois became the 11th state to pass legislation to legalize recreational marijuana. New York may be the next state to pass similar legislation. In addition, 33 states (including Georgia) and the District of Columbia have passed laws legalizing the use of medical marijuana. With all the legal weed out there, should employers continue to drug test applicants (and employees) for the presence of THC (a marijuana metabolite)?

First and foremost—be aware that these state laws have no impact on federally mandated testing of applicants and employees, most notably, drug testing required by the Department of Transportation (DOT). To that end, the DOT has issued the “Recreational Marijuana” Notice: “We want to make it perfectly clear that the state initiatives will have no bearing on the Department of Transportation’s regulated drug testing program. The Department of Transportation’s Drug and Alcohol Testing Regulation – 49 CFR Part 40 – does not authorize the use of Schedule I drugs, including marijuana, for any reason.” As far as federal law is concerned, marijuana use is illegal.

For those applicants and employees that are not subject to federally mandated drug testing, some employers are discontinuing drug testing for the presence of THC. Some of those employers are doing so in order to avoid violating state laws: 11 states (Arkansas, Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Minnesota, Nevada, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island) have statutes that explicitly prohibit employment discrimination against medical marijuana users. New York City passed an ordinance banning employers from conducting preemployment tests for medical marijuana. Nevada has recently passed legislation (awaiting the governor’s signature) that would prohibit an employer from rejecting a job candidate for testing positive for marijuana. We are also seeing court cases where the courts have found in favor of protecting medical marijuana users against discrimination.

Furthermore, some employers have stopped screening applicants for THC because they find that they are losing too many otherwise acceptable job candidates.

One of the biggest challenges for employers is determining if an employee is under the influence of marijuana while working. THC can stay in a person’s system for as long as 3 weeks. Current drug tests cannot accurately pinpoint when an individual actually ingested marijuana. Obviously, employers do not want their employees to be stoned while working, especially if they are operating equipment, driving, or providing health care services. If an employer has a suspicion that an employee is under the influence of marijuana while working, it is important to carefully document the reasons supporting that suspicion, such as odor and employee appearance and behavior, before sending the employee home or taking further action.

This is a very dynamic area of the law, and it is important to stay up to date on the laws of the states where your company does business.

Kathleen Jennings, Principal is a principal in the Atlanta office of Wimberly, Lawson, Steckel, Schneider, & Stine, P.C. She defends employers in employment matters, such as sexual harassment, discrimination, Wage and Hour, OSHA, restrictive covenants, and other employment litigation and provides training and counseling to employers in employment matters. She can be contacted at kjj@wimlaw.com.

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