September 12, 2010
Opponents of marijuana legalization complain that Proposition 19 could endanger workplace safety. Employers, such as Ed Rullman of the Best Western Hilltop Inn in his Aug. 15 Op-Ed, object that Proposition 19 has a clause protecting employees against discrimination for private, adult use of marijuana. However, this is qualified by an important provision protecting employers’ right “to address consumption that actually impairs job performance.”
Why then should Proposition 19 be a problem for employers? Because they want to test employees for behavior that doesn’t affect job performance by using the inherently flawed and inaccurate technology of urine testing.
Contrary to popular misconception, urine tests don’t measure the active presence of marijuana in the system, but rather non-active chemical by-products that linger for days or weeks after any impairing effects have faded. Urine testing routinely flags the most harmless, weekend use of marijuana, while completely ignoring the No. 1 cause of drug abuse, alcohol.
Urine testing is therefore a highly unreliable indicator of impairment or job fitness. In fact, it is perfectly possible to be high as a kite and still pass a urine test with flying colors because marijuana doesn’t show up in the urine until hours after smoking. Such problems can be avoided by other, more accurate screening methods, such as blood tests, which detect the active presence of drugs in the system, or the field sobriety checks used by law enforcement in DUI stops.
But aren’t urine tests still helpful in protecting workplace safety? Scientific evidence for this is conspicuously lacking. Urine testing has never undergone the kind of rigorous FDA “safety and efficacy” studies that are required for other medical devices and drugs.
Numerous studies have found that subjects who test positive for marijuana are no more accident-prone, and in some instances even safer, than those who don’t.
A recent expert review by the Canadian Center for Addictions Research recommended against use of drug urinalysis, concluding that “urinalysis has not been shown to have a meaningful impact on job injury/accident rates.”
A study of high-tech companies found that drug testing was associated with reduced productivity, apparently because it undermines worker morale and trust. Drug urinalysis may thus be an indicator of sloppy management by large corporations who exercise poor oversight over workers.
Until recent years, it would have been laughable to suppose that American workers should be forced to submit urine samples to prove their job worthiness. The U.S. is alone among developed countries in regarding urine testing as a routine practice. In the Netherlands, where marijuana is legally available to all adults, drug testing is hardly used, yet workplace safety is substantially better than in the U.S.
The bottom line is that marijuana residues in urine pose no risk to workplace safety. In many cases, it is even preferable to let employees use marijuana for medical purposes at home so as to help avoid pain and other problems that can impair their performance.
Of course, there may exist situations where some kind of drug testing is useful in protecting workplace safety. If so, Proposition 19 specifically permits it. In no case would Proposition 19 override existing federal drug testing rules, anymore than did Proposition 215.
In general, however, Proposition 19 would benefit countless workers — pot users and non-users alike — by sparing them the degrading indignity of submitting to intrusive, misleading urine tests that have no bearing on job fitness.