With graduation right around the corner, the harsh realities of life after college are on a lot of people’s minds. But for some soon-to-be graduates, the typical horrors of moving away from friends and finding a job seem insignificant next to something even more disheartening — the drug test.
Initially encouraged by the Reagan administration as an anti-drug appeal to employers, drug testing has become an increasingly routine part of getting a job. Background screening company HireRight estimates that 58 percent of job hunters in the United States today will be drug tested at some point.
On the surface, this policy makes sense — discouraging drug use in the workplace seems like a logical step for an employer to take, especially in a hazardous or high-pressure environment.
But at its heart, drug testing has a big problem: how to deal with marijuana users, both recreational and medical. Current drug testing methods put marijuana users at a disadvantage over hard drug users because of how much longer cannabis stays in the human body. The tests create unfair gray areas for those who use medical marijuana.
According to numbers from clinical testing company Quest Diagnostics, weed is currently the most common drug found in positive drug tests. And even a trace of cannabis in your system can lead to a decision not to hire. This trend continues in spite of both marijuana’s relative safety compared to other drugs and its increasing medical application.
It makes sense that weed would be the most frequently detected drug in screenings — marijuana is the most commonly used illegal drug in America. According to a 2013 study from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 19.8 million people, ages 12 and up, have used marijuana. But just as consequential is how long the chemical remnants of the drug remain in your system — often close to a month, according to a 1989 study from the University of Uppsala.
A drug test will look for the chemical byproducts of various drugs, usually from urine, saliva or hair. For someone who uses marijuana daily, it could take one to three months of detoxification before those byproducts are gone. This waiting period is longer than any other illegal drug.
A heavy cocaine user, by comparison, would only have to abstain for seven to 10 days to pass a screening, effectively giving hard drug users an advantage in the job market over weed smokers. This is unacceptable when weed is quantifiably safer than even legal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco — drugs few companies test for.
Compounding the problem is the contradictory, patchwork nature of marijuana laws in this country. Currently, marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, but 28 states have some kind of medical marijuana program, and eight of those have also legalized recreational marijuana.
This stark difference between state and federal law creates legal gray areas when it comes to drug testing medical marijuana patients. In 20 of the states that allow medical marijuana, including Pennsylvania, there’s nothing stopping an employer from firing someone who tests positive for marijuana, even if they have a doctor’s recommendation.
Take the case of Brandon Coats, a quadriplegic man from Colorado who sued his former employer, DISH Network, for wrongful termination after he tested positive for marijuana use on a drug test. Coats had a doctor’s recommendation for medical marijuana, which is legal in Colorado, to treat crippling muscle spasms.
Unfortunately, Coats’ lawsuit failed, not just because marijuana is still illegal under federal law, but because Colorado lacks legal protections for medical marijuana patients. States like Arizona and Minnesota have provisions in their medical marijuana laws that make it illegal for a company to act on a positive test for marijuana if the employee has a medical card.
From a legal perspective, it’s understandable why Coats’ lawsuit failed, given that his actions were illegal under federal law. But what isn’t understandable is why medical marijuana is treated differently than any other prescription medicine. If Coats were taking prescribed opiates instead of marijuana, he would still be employed today.
This isn’t to say testing for weed doesn’t have its place. For high-pressure government and military work, as well as jobs that require heavy machinery, it’s responsible to ensure every worker is sober and clear-headed. It also makes sense to test for weed after an accident on the job, to help determine fault.
But the reality for most customer service and white collar jobs is that policing marijuana use is a waste for both employers and applicants. Applicants waste time taking a drug test that is likely pointless, and companies waste money on tests that experienced marijuana users will know how to circumvent anyway.
While screening for harder drugs is admittedly simple to get around, employers should still conduct the tests to filter out those who cannot quit, if only for liability reasons. But marijuana is not addictive and does not present the same psychological dangers as hard drugs. Testing for weed is like fumigating your house over a spider, an overreaction to something virtually harmless.
Ultimately, trying to stomp marijuana out of the workforce entirely is a task as Herculean as it is pointless. It’s high time corporate America recognize when they’re fighting a losing battle and just let the good times roll.
Nick primarily writes on politics and American culture for The Pitt News.