The Looming Employment Crisis No One Is Discussing

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As of March 2018, thirty states and the District of Columbia have passed laws legalizing marijuana in some form. Eight of these states have legalized marijuana for recreational use. But under federal law, cannabis use is still illegal, and the substance is listed as a Schedule 1 drug by the DEA (defined as drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.) With more than one in five Americans now having access to cannabis without a prescription and far more than half the population able to access it via a state medical marijuana program, more and more Americans are at risk of having their employment either denied or revoked because of outdated drug testing policies in corporate America. We need to change this.

There are ongoing studies to determine how long marijuana can stay in a person’s system. The Mayo Clinic has published reports that say cannabis can be detected in urine as much as a month or more after a person’s last usage. Anecdotal evidence suggests an even longer time. The detection window can vary depending on how chronically a person uses cannabis, their diet and activity, weight, and metabolism rate. 

THC, the primary chemical compound found in marijuana (responsible for the euphoric ‘high’ in its users) is an extremely hydrophobic organic compound. When this compound is broken down by the body, it is broken into about 80 different metabolites. And, because of the hydrophobic nature of these molecules, water can’t “stick” to them and dissolve them like it can with alcohol. Instead, these metabolites associate themselves with other substances found in the body like oils and body fat. 

This is why people can fail drug tests and test positive for cannabis, even if they haven’t digested it for days or weeks. Marijuana usage is only one of the many reasons potential employees are failing their drug tests, which in addition to the growing opioid epidemic has resulted in failed drug tests reaching a 12 year high in 2017, according to Quest Diagnostics.

This problem landed on my doorstep not too long ago. For some background: I have a fear of flying that developed after the events of 9/11. I don’t fly very often, so I’ve never sought treatment and have successfully managed my anxiety with over-the-counter motion sickness medication. But a recent trip across the country to California elicited unusually serious panic attacks. 

My brother, a medical cannabis patient in California for years, shared some of his to help calm my nerves. Thankfully, it worked. I used cannabis throughout my trip to keep my nerves in check and took a larger dose via an edible before flying home to NJ. 

A few weeks later, when I was hired for a new job with a health advocacy organization, my drug test came back positive for marijuana. My employment offer was revoked. I had no idea that there was a possibility of testing positive for a substance I hadn’t recently consumed.

Knowing that this organization was dedicated to being on the front lines of emerging research and best practices to help people struggling with developmental disorders, I was confident that if I simply explained the situation, they would be understanding and empathetic to my mindful use, legally, of cannabis for the benefit of my health. I was wrong.

I appealed the decision based on my spotless work record, great recommendations within and outside the company, six years of previous work history as a contractor with the company, and the support of both my soon-to-be boss and her boss. The organization is, of course, within their legal right to deny me employment. But I couldn’t fathom the morality and hypocrisy of their policy under the circumstances. 

A follow-up call with the head of their HR department confirmed what I suspected: they and their legal department were responsible for the policy, yet also claimed ‘their hands were tied’.

This is the looming employment crisis that is already affecting thousands of people and hundreds of companies. Viable potential and current employees are being denied the right to work based on activity that is legal. Companies (even in states where recreational marijuana is legal) are free to discriminate and withhold employment simply if cannabis if found in an applicant’s system. 

The acceptance of cannabis as a treatment for a wide variety and severity of ailments is rising and is unlikely to reverse direction. These hiring policies in corporate America are already causing great harm, inflicting pain, grief, anxiety, and dehumanizing people who use cannabis to help cope with the difficulties of life in the 21st century.

My story is only one of many thousands. When an advocacy organization such as this chooses to treat normal job applicants like criminals, carrying out and justifying demeaning, humiliating, and dehumanizing actions by a few words on an internal document, there must be a light shone on behalf of this systemized injustice inflicted by corporate interests, aided by a US drug policy written and enforced on behalf of the corporate interests of pharmaceutical companies.

I share my story to help further the conversation, hoping that enough support can be mounted to realize that these seemingly prudent policies inflict much more harm than they realize. When the evidence is insurmountable that the ends don’t justify the means, change must occur. Otherwise, we continue to normalize and tolerate injustice and discrimination in the workplace.