At the federal level, marijuana remains classified as a "Schedule I" drug. According to the government, that means cannabis has no accepted medicinal uses, and its use comes with a very high potential for abuse. Nationwide, we've seen that these descriptions aren't exactly accurate. Medical marijuana programs and specially-bred strains for anti-seizure medication have been around for years, even decades, in some places. Legalized recreational use is now widespread.

Attitudes have changed, too. According to a 2021 study by Pew Research, only 8% of adults in the US were completely opposed to cannabis legalization in any form. A net result of 91% of respondents said the drug should be legal in one form or another. While the federal government continues to move slowly on rescheduling marijuana, it faces a growing problem: many job applicants must necessarily admit to using the drug presently or in the past during the federal background check process.

A pre-employment drug test is not uncommon in any industry, and especially at the federal level, it can make sense to be more cautious. However, strict prohibitions against cannabis usage risk lumping the drug into the same category as opiates, cocaine, and amphetamines — all of which could represent a much bigger risk. 

The gears of government move slowly, but they do seem to turn. In February of 2022, the Office of Personnel Management directed federal agencies to stop automatically disqualifying applicants because of a drug screening result that showed marijuana. Even so, that does not mean they cannot be disqualified for such a result. Similarly, another big barrier remains: what about those who need to acquire a security clearance to do their job?

Clearances are a big deal in the federal government, especially in the three-letter agencies where matters of national security may be at stake. As the regulations currently stand, an applicant who admits to marijuana usage when seeking to work in the intelligence community will not be able to proceed — their clearance request will be denied. The Senate Intelligence Committee recently voted to change these rules.

After passing the committee, the new rules prohibit the CIA, NSA, and other intelligence organizations from denying applicants based on marijuana usage alone. The updated regulation is now a part of a larger intelligence authorization bill that must still pass both houses of Congress before it can become law. In spite of a tepid response from the present administration about its support for such measures, the rule's placement in a broader bill ensures it will likely become law if the entire package passes.

Although marijuana has in the past been the most common drug test for employment, businesses should consider the potential benefits of relaxing their restrictions on prior cannabis use — especially in view of standards changing for those working at the most sensitive levels of government. While the value of pre-employment drug screening remains high, it may be time to reinterpret the results.

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Michael Klazema

About Michael Klazema The author

Michael Klazema is the lead author and editor for Dallas-based with a focus on human resource and employment screening developments

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