As Workplace Drug Testing for Marijuana Wanes, Concerns Rise About Opioid Abuse

By Michael Klazema on 5/18/2018

Compared to twenty or even ten years ago, the state of marijuana legalization in the United States has shifted. To date, nearly 30 states have laws authorizing the use of medical marijuana, while nine states allow adult recreational usage as well. The latter number looks set to rise with ballot measures planned in other states. 

As marijuana usage has normalized, employers across the nation have been forced to confront a conundrum: if they deny applicants based on pre-employment drug screenings that indicate marijuana usage, they find themselves with a dearth of employees to fill open positions.

According to the Associated Press, this has led to the emergence of an interesting phenomenon. Some employers are choosing to end screenings for marijuana, removing that barrier to employment in non-regulated positions. Medical cannabis users in legal states such as Rhode Island and Massachusetts recently won court battles over dismissals and employment denials based on marijuana usage. This marks a notable shift, as courts have previously been reluctant to rule in this manner. While marijuana usage remains grounds for dismissal elsewhere, even in recreational states like Colorado, these legal victories indicate turning tides in workplace drug policies. 

Faced with some of the most acute staffing shortages in recent years, businesses in industries as disparate as industrial factory production and the hospitality sector have chosen to forgo the drug screens often conducted in conjunction with criminal history checks like those available on Caesars Entertainment, a major hospitality brand in control of dozens of casinos in Las Vegas and around the world, is one of the largest employers to recently conclude marijuana drug testing. Since the positions in question do not have federally-mandated drug tests (as is the case for airline pilots) and do not involve public safety, employers claim marijuana testing unnecessarily restricts the pool of available applicants.

Does that spell the end for the workplace drug test? While interest in screening for marijuana wanes, the need to detect abuse of opioids and other prescription painkillers continues to rise. In fact, the federal government recently implemented new rules that expand the scope of mandatory drug screens to include a new raft of opioids. According to OTR trucking giant JB Hunt, nearly half of all drug tests performed on truckers which tested positive did so for opioids, leading to action to prevent those individuals from operating vehicles.

Opioid abuse is considered more serious than marijuana usage, not only because it leads to long-term addiction but because the potential for impairment on the job is perceived as much greater. Based on research by EHS Today, employee drug abuse problems contribute to annual losses totaling $140 billion. As the opioid epidemic continues, many of these losses will be driven by prescription drug abuse. 

Even as interest in marijuana prohibition declines, employers must remain vigilant to foster drug-free workplaces. At, in addition to services such as reference verification, employers can order comprehensive drug screens. These panels include tests for opiates as well as other hard drugs. Together with sensible and legally compliant policies on hiring and screening, drug tests remain a highly valuable tool.

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