Employers Might Reconsider Blanket Drug Testing, Labor Secretary Suggests

Employers Might Reconsider Blanket Drug Testing, Labor Secretary Suggests

Should US employers still be rejecting candidates or firing employees for using marijuana? Maybe not, US Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta suggested in comments to Congress this week, according to Politico’s Morning Shift:

Acosta said Tuesday that employers should rethink the practice of drug testing every job applicant, which he suggested could keep qualified people out of the workforce. Acosta’s remarks came in response to a question from Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) during a House Ways and Means Committee hearing. Blumenauer, who’s from a state that legalized recreational marijuana, said he’s concerned that legal pot shows up “in ways that are disqualifying” on drug tests, and asked Acosta what could be done to “unleash” those workers’ potential.

“There are sometimes valid health and safety reasons why an individual that cannot pass a drug test shouldn’t hold a certain job,” Acosta said. However, he also said some employers “make the assumption that because there’s a negative result on a test they would not be a good employee.”

Acosta was testifying in a hearing on Jobs and Opportunity: Federal Perspectives on the Jobs Gap, part of a series of hearings the committee is holding as it prepares to reauthorize the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. While the secretary did not say in so many words that employers should stop drug testing their employees, he expressed the opinion that “it’s important to take a step back … and ask, are we aligning our drug policies and our drug testing policies with what’s right for the workforce?”

Blumenauer’s question to Acosta and the secretary’s less-than-categorical answer both reflect the significant degree to which employers are being forced to rethink their drug policies in light of changing attitudes toward cannabis and the growing number of jurisdictions where it has been decriminalized or legalized for either medicinal or recreational uses. Businesses have begun lobbying the Trump administration to issue guidelines on how to navigate the conflict between federal drug laws—under which marijuana is still classified as a Schedule I substance along with heroin, ecstasy, and LSD—and increasingly liberal state laws.

While only Congress can change the classification of cannabis under federal law, the administration enjoys some discretion over how aggressively to enforce its prohibition, and its stance appears to be softening. Last week, according to the Washington Post, President Donald Trump told Colorado’s Republican Senator Cory Gardner that he would support states’ rights to make their own decisions about the drug’s legal status. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, however, has expressed absolute opposition to legalization and threatened in January to resume prosecutions of marijuana users or dispensaries in legal states, which had been eased under the Obama administration. It is not yet clear whether or how Trump’s assurances to Gardner will change the Justice Department’s approach.

One interesting point that Acosta raised in his remarks to the House committee was that the current tightness of the labor market had some bearing on how employers should approach this issue. Indeed, many employers have already discovered that rejecting candidates who test positive for marijuana is costing them more than it is worth, in part because it cuts off their ability to hire otherwise qualified employees at a time when organizations need all the talent they can get.