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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington Legislature considers a bill that would prevent pre-employment cannabis testing

A nearly mature cannabis plant shows dozens of flowers on a single stalk on April 11, 2018, at Phat Panda, the largest cannabis growing operation in Spokane.  (JESSE TINSLEY/The Spokesman-Review)
By Elena Perry The Spokesman-Review

OLYMPIA – More than a decade after voters legalized marijuana under Washington law, some state lawmakers hope to end the use of testing for the drug as a condition for getting hired.

Recreational use of marijuana is legal under state law for adults over the age of 21 in Washington, but legalization hasn’t stopped some employers from making hiring decisions based on the results of drug testing for cannabis .

A bill sponsored by Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Des Moines, would prevent testing for cannabis for pre-employment, though employers still would be able to test workers while they are employed.

“I think that it is discrimination at this point, to discriminate against someone for the use of a legal substance just in terms of being hired,” Keiser said. “We really need to open our doors and not close them. It’s both a fairness issue and a workforce issue.”

Amazon, the world’s second largest employer, announced in 2021 that the company would remove cannabis from their pre-employment drug screening program for positions not regulated by the Department of Transportation. If passed, this bill would require other employers in Washington to follow suit.

After consuming cannabis, chemical compounds from the drug stay in the user’s system for anywhere from a day to several months, depending on a litany of factors, including the frequency of use, level of THC in the cannabis, the user’s metabolism and the drug testing method used, according to the American Addiction Centers. Current drug testing technology tests for the presence of these metabolites, which doesn’t reflect impairment.

“If the same approach were applied to alcohol, employers would refuse employment to anyone who enjoyed a beer or a glass of wine on the weekend,” said Burl Bryson, executive director for The Cannabis Alliance. “We all know that this is not a workable standard.”

Keiser said the bill would help address workforce shortages, one of the topics both parties have identified as a priority during this legislative session. Some people won’t apply for jobs if they know they have to take a drug test prior to employment and won’t be considered for that job, she said.

Opponents of the bill say that drug testing is crucial for employers in maintaining a safe work environment, and if an employee comes to work impaired, the employer is liable for any safety concerns that may result from this impairment.

Opinions from all sides of this issue and from both sides of the aisle echoed the need for improved cannabis testing that would determine if employees are impaired, rather than the mere presence of cannabinoids in their system.

“We have to maintain the safe workplace, and the only tool we have for dealing with cannabis on that is this inadequate test,” said Jim King with the Independent Business Association.

Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, leader of the Republican caucus, said he doesn’t think this bill is the solution to the issue of hiring discrimination based on the legal consumption of cannabis.

“I think the issue here is less a legislative one and more a technical one,” Braun said. “It seems to me that folks who are in this industry, who participate in the use of the products ought to be very interested in improving their testing so that we can show without a doubt if, just because you legally use cannabis, that you’re not impaired when you come to work.”

While there is no widely known test for cannabis impairment, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital have been studying a noninvasive brain imaging procedure that could indicate THC impairment, according to a press release from last year.

The Senate Labor and Commerce Committee heard the bill on Jan. 10, and it was scheduled for a vote out of committee on Thursday, though the committee took no action on this bill.