Is Drug Testing Employees Still Worth the Cost?

Is Drug Testing Employees Still Worth the Cost?

For a growing number of US employers, the answer is “no,” Rebecca Greenfield and Jennifer Kaplan report at Bloomberg, pointing to organizations like Excellence Health, a 6,000-employee company which stopped testing candidates outside safety-sensitive roles for marijuana two years ago and now no longer bothers drug testing them at all:

We don’t care what people do in their free time,” said Liam Meyer, a company spokesperson. “We want to help these people, instead of saying: ‘Hey, you can’t work for us because you used a substance,’” he added. The company also added a hotline for any workers who might be struggling with drug use.

With marijuana becoming legal in more states, a historically tight labor market, and rising rates of illegal drug use (particularly cannabis) causing the number of candidates who can pass drug tests to dwindle, more employers are finding that a zero-tolerance approach to drugs is no longer effective. Like Excellence Health, many have shifted their policies on drug use toward helping employees who struggle with abuse and addiction instead, treating drugs primarily as a health and safety issue rather than a legal issue.

This is particularly true for employers in states that have legalized marijuana, such as Colorado, Greenfield and Kaplan note. Others are moving in the same direction, however, though some are not eager to advertise their softening stance on drug use. Amid a rise in the number of American adults who use drugs and a growing recognition that smoking pot doesn’t disqualify an employee from most jobs any more than drinking alcohol does, pre-employment drug testing “is no longer worth the expense in a society increasingly accepting of drug use,” they write:

In addition to helping ease the labor market, eliminating drug testing could have even broader benefits for the economy, said [Jeremy Kidd, a professor at Mercer Law School]. Employers could hire the best, theoretically most-productive workers, he said, instead of rejecting people based on their recreational habits. Companies have said they lose out to foreign competitors because they can’t find people who can pass drugs tests, a particularly acute problem in the areas most affected by the opioid crisis.

Maintaining a drug-free workplace does still offer some benefits, such as discounts on workers’ compensation insurance. For typical office jobs, however, in which workers’ compensation claims are rare, those savings may not be worth the cost of rejecting otherwise highly qualified candidates who happen to test positive for marijuana. While increasingly widespread use and acceptance of drugs is shifting employers’ cost-benefit analysis, the critique of widespread drug testing as being dubiously beneficial to organizations has been around for a while. Studies attempting to measure the impact of strict drug testing regimes on workplace safety, for instance, have found that they are often less effective than advertised.

One thing that may rightly give a US employer pause in considering whether to relax their policies toward drugs, particularly marijuana, is that despite the proliferation of state laws making it legal, cannabis is still classified as a Schedule I narcotic under federal law. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is resolutely opposed to legalization and has indicated that his Justice Department will not refrain from prosecuting users and dispensaries in states that have decriminalized or legalized the drug. Employers are now calling on the federal government to issue guidance on how to handle the conflict between federal and state law in these jurisdictions, particularly with regard to how far organizations can go in policing their employees’ marijuana use.