Adult-Use Legalization Could Hurt Michigan Workers at Drug-Testing Time

By Kimberly Haynes Taylor for Weedmaps News

“You're going to see a fadeout of these pre-employment employment drug screening tests as a requirement for employment with many of these larger companies.”
- David Mangone

Michigan is preparing to usher in a new era with legal recreational marijuana sales in 2020, but the state's largest employers say their pre-employment drug screenings that include cannabis will not change.

The state's residents already are failing pre-employment drug screening tests at a rate higher than elsewhere in the nation. According to Quest Diagnostics data, the numbers of people who didn't pass pre-employment drug screenings and likely lost potential job opportunities has increased by 31% from 2014 to 2018, and jumped more than 20% between 2017 and 2018, alone. A Quest Diagnostics scientist said the numbers suggest a spike in marijuana use.

“You're going to see a fadeout of these pre-employment employment drug screening tests as a requirement for employment with many of these larger companies,” said David Mangone, Director of Government Affairs for the Washington, D.C.-based legalization advocacy organization Americans for Safe Access.

As more states legalize marijuana, Mangone said, they will become more like Nevada, where the first statewide law in the U.S. was passed to bar employers from potential job seekers because they failed a test for marijuana use. That law also will be effective in 2020.

The issue of drug testing in the workplace has become a quandary in Michigan and other states as the legalization of medical and recreational marijuana continues to spread across the U.S.  Employers, already struggling to recruit employees in a tight labor market, are grappling with maintaining policies that include marijuana in drug testing panels and finding qualified employees who can pass them. But attorneys and advocates say some employer policies already are softening, and as more states legalize marijuana, employer policies will become more flexible.

In Detroit, Michigan's largest city, residents' marijuana use and employability became such a concern the city launched a billboard campaign in spring 2019 warning that marijuana use equates to no jobs. The billboard campaign was part of the city's effort to register 10,000 Detroiters for an early shot at some of the nearly 5,000 new jobs expected to be created as part of Fiat Chrysler Automobile  (FCA)'s massive $2.5 billion expansion in the city.

“The no-marijuana policy is FCA's and the purpose of the billboards was to make sure the thousands of Detroiters who were seeking to get on FCA's preferred hiring list clearly understood that testing positive would disqualify them,” John Roach, a city spokesman, told Weedmaps News in an email.

The project is Detroit's first new assembly plant in 30 years. That many potential new jobs, at least in recent memory, is believed to be unprecedented in the city where unemployment is higher than the 4.4% unemployment rate in the metro area. FCA officials have made it clear that applicants must be able to pass a drug screen that includes marijuana — regardless of it being medical or recreational — to qualify.

Because of safety requirements, many large companies, including utilities DTE Energy Co. and Consumer's Energy Co. that deal with explosive natural gas, high-voltage electricity, and heavy machinery, must continue to conduct drug screenings because marijuana is still considered a Schedule 1 narcotic. As federal contractors, the companies must screen for all narcotics.

“At DTE, given the importance of the safety of our employees and our customers, we strictly prohibit the use, possession, or sale of marijuana – as well as being under the influence of marijuana in the workplace,” Sallie Justice, a DTE spokesperson, said. “We do not plan to change our company's drug-free policy.”

That's why Darlene Owens, the Substance Abuse Director for the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority, a county agency that partnered with the city of Detroit for the billboard project, insists marijuana consumers should just say no.

“If someone wants one of these nice jobs, if you test positive you are not going to get that nice job,” Owens said. “Then if you get one of those nice jobs, you have to keep it.”

The billboards posted around Detroit offer an 800-number to get help with marijuana use. Callers undergo a 15-minute assessment and are referred to health-care providers for inpatient or outpatient treatment. In 2018, 1,472 people called the number for help, Wayne County data shows, a 40.5% increase from 1,047 callers in 2017.

“Even though people in the state of Michigan voted to say 'we are going to make recreational marijuana legal,' we're trying to say you need to be drug-free,” Owens said. “That's our goal.”

Medical marijuana was legalized in the state in November 2008. Voters approved legal adult-use marijuana in November 2018, making Michigan the 10th state in the nation to legalize recreational marijuana. With that vote, it became legal in December 2018 for adults to possess up to 2.5 ounces, or 71 grams, of marijuana on them, and,up to 10 ounces, or 283.5 grams, and 12 plants for personal use in their residence.

Detroit voters decriminalized marijuana in 2012, amending the city code to exempt adults ages 21 and older from being prosecuted for possession on private property of less than 1 ounce, or 28.35 grams.

While Michigan residents have abundant ways to legally access marijuana, if they test positive for marijuana, in the workplace they don't enjoy protections under the law to save their jobs.

“More people in the workforce that are subject to employment drug tests that include marijuana are testing positive, which suggests that there might be increased use among that group of workers,” said Barry Sample, Senior Director of Science and Technology for Quest Diagnostics.

At privately owned businesses, employers are deciding whether to test potential hires for marijuana.

“If we tested as a condition for employment, we wouldn't find anybody to work,” said Jeffrey Lanctot, Executive Chef at the Rattlesnake Club, a high-end restaurant in Detroit. “I do handle the issue with anybody who seems impaired or intoxicated, and I do inform all the employees that if they get hurt on the job, they will immediately be sent for testing.”

These issues surrounding marijuana consumption and employer drug testing are simply growing pains as laws legalizing marijuana change society and culture, said Matthew Abel, a longtime cannabis attorney and Executive Director of the Michigan Chapter of the National Organization for the Reform Marijuana Laws (NORML).

“The struggle is not over,” he said. “People need to get used to cannabis in the community being legal. It's going to take some time. I wish it would take place overnight, but we realized legalization was just the beginning.”