Colorado’s Low Unemployment, Legal Pot Push Employers To Reconsider Drug Tests

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Photo: Colorado Marijuana Smoker - AP
Grace Sisti, of Denver, smokes a joint on the official opening night of a marijuana-specific social club, Monday Dec. 31, 2012.

In 2013, The Denver Post named Ricardo Baca its first editor for marijuana coverage, making him the staff expert on pot. That meant sometimes counseling new hires on how to pass the newspaper’s pre-employment drug test.

“It was super awkward,” Baca recalls. “I’d have an editor come to me, and they’d kinda quietly say, ‘Hey, I’ve this new hire, she’s really great, but she lives in Seattle and she consumes regularly, and she’s not going to pass this drug test, and so can you help us out?’”

Baca would ask prospective employees when they last used, and he’d tell them marijuana stays in the body for a month or longer. He had gotten up to speed on the issues after editing a big story on this very subject. He’d send them a link, he says, “and just hope for the best.”

Photo: Colo Pot Employment 1 | Former DPost Cannabist Editor Ricardo Baca - BMarkus
Former marijuana and Cannabist editor Ricardo Baca.

Eventually, the Post dropped marijuana from its drug screenings for some of its jobs, including the newsroom — something more Colorado businesses are doing. It’s about supply and demand, says Curtis Graves, information resource manager for the Mountain States Employers Council.

“We’re finding that for employers, it’s such a tight labor market, that they can’t always afford to have a zero-tolerance approach to somebody’s off-duty marijuana use,” Graves says.

“Tight labor market” may be an understatement. Colorado’s unemployment rate is the lowest in the nation at 2.3 percent. It’s the lowest since the state began keeping track of the number in the 70s.

The lack of available talent is especially a problem in construction.

“It is hard to find dependable people that will show up to work everyday, on time at this wage level,” says J Bretz, who runs Excel Roofing, just outside Denver.

With 1 in every 7 adults in Colorado using marijuana, according to surveys from the Colorado Division of Public Health and Environment, even the most conservative employers are having to rethink their testing policies.

So when Bretz wrote a new “Help Wanted” ad on Craigslist he made a change. He would not drop an applicant if they tested positive for marijuana.

“If you disqualified every person because of the use of marijuana, we would end up not having very many candidates to choose from,” Bretz says, adding that positive tests for drugs like cocaine and heroin are still an automatic disqualification.

Photo: Colo Pot Employment 2 | J Bretz, Excel Roofing- BMarkus
J Bretz is the owner of Excel Roofing company, based in Englewood, Colo.

Employers across the country have near-total discretion whether to sanction off-duty pot use. Only three states have some protections for medical marijuana users: Arizona, Delaware and Minnesota. Even so, state court decisions have consistently sided with employers — like in the case of Brandon Coats.

John Hudak, a marijuana expert at the Brookings Institution, says whether a person’s cannabis use is medical or recreational, there’s no getting around the fact that it’s still against federal law.

“It creates real challenges for plaintiffs, for medical patients or other cannabis consumers to try to push the envelope and find rights or protections in the law,” says Hudak.

Colorado’s initiative to legalize marijuana, Amendment 64, specifically said pot could still be included in workplace drug testing. That’s also common in other state’s pot legalization measures. Hudak says it’s a political calculation, to help keep the business community from campaigning against it.

As for Ricardo Baca, he left The Denver Post to start a cannabis-focused communications firm, where he won’t be drug testing

“Oh, gosh no. No. There will be zero drug testing going on,” he says. “And I imagine I’ll only be hiring people I know, and I know their work ethic, so feeling pretty good about it.”