Drug Testing in the Era of Medical Marijuana
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Before the mid-1990s, marijuana was illegal across the United States for any purpose, medicinal or recreational. However, the current landscape is quite different. Today, 33 states, four inhabited U.S. territories, and Washington DC allow marijuana for medical use with the permission of a doctor, and an additional 11 states and DC allow for the use marijuana for recreational purposes.
In spite of these steps forward, many employers nationwide, from retail stores to investment banks, continue to drug test employees at all levels. For those who use marijuana legally, particularly for those who rely on low-THC strains of marijuana for things like pain relief, this can create serious issues in maintaining ongoing employment.
Company Policies and Laws
While the laws are changing, company policies often aren’t moving at the same speed. Many companies, both large and small, continue to outlaw the use of any illicit substance of any kind, including drugs like marijuana. These kinds of policies are based in history rather than need; other controlled substances, like oxycodone, are often allowed with an exemption provided by a doctor, but this isn’t always the case for marijuana.
The lengthy illegality of marijuana still colors perceptions in even progressive organization and it is consistently grouped into the same categories as more dangerous substances, like heroin or cocaine. As such, testing positive for any substance illegal on a federal level can lead to the loss of a job.
This is true in locations where marijuana is fully legal as well. Take Illinois, for example – the state recently passed legislation legalizing marijuana to take effect January 1st, 2020. However, there does not appear to be any movement regarding drug tests, as companies will still be permitted to set their own hiring and employment requirements so long as federal discrimination protections are not violated – including the acceptance or lack thereof of recreational drug users.
Doctor Approval and Drug Tests
As medical marijuana spreads, the involvement of doctors in supporting marijuana use is growing exponentially. In all states participating in the propagation of marijuana for health purposes, a doctor’s approval is required.
The reasons for approval can be flexible – some doctors who believe in marijuana use may provide access for something as simple as regular headaches or mild anxiety – but regardless, a licensed physician must make this call. As such, there is no reason why marijuana should be treated differently in any way than other prescriptions that may arise in a drug test, like the use of narcotic pain medication to treat injury or stimulants to address behavior challenges, like ADHD.
However, as many drug users have learned, whether recreational in states where the practice is legal or medicinally with proper approval, have learned, this isn’t always the case. Some companies will not accept a doctor’s note as an explanation for a positive drug test. While many users have assumed that marijuana use would be treated similarly to alcohol – generally legal when not consumed on company time – this is not always true, either.
A doctor’s note doesn’t carry weight all of the time, however, even for legal prescriptions for other medications. There are some jobs in which testing positive for substances like opiates, for example, results in a carte blanche dismissal, regardless of demonstrated medical need. Jobs like trucking that require a clear head on the road may not allow drugs in any capacity, and marijuana is generally included in this blanket ban.
Recreational vs. Medical Marijuana
Marijuana is very popular in the U.S., regardless of legality. Around 22% of the population has smoked at least once in the last month, making it far more widespread than any other drug that is illegal on the federal level. While some people who smoke regularly do ingest for medical purposes, others get high for the enjoyment.
While there’s nothing wrong with responsible use for medical or recreational purposes when legal, those who use medical marijuana sometimes feel as if recreational users complicate things, blurring the lines between necessity and a good time. So, many users wonder whether there is a way to differentiate between recreational and medical marijuana use on drug tests, particularly as the composition of common strains tends to vary.
Unfortunately, the answer is no. While it’s true that medical strains often have lower levels of THC – many medical users do not want to get high on a regular basis in order to feel better – standard drug tests do not screen at this level of detail. Most tests come back positive or not positive based on the presence of metabolites detected at specific levels, and there’s no way to tell definitively whether a prescription is involved by a test alone.
Timelines for Testing
Marijuana is known for its long detection window due to thow the drug is stored within fat cells within the body. For heavy users, this is a major downside, particularly for those who are tested regularly with no leniency at work. Timelines for testing as as follows:
- Urine tests: one to three weeks
- Blood tests: several hours
- Saliva tests: one to four days
- Hair tests: up to 90 days
Note that marijuana doesn’t stay in the body for very long after a single use, but someone who uses marijuana every day will likely test positive for weeks to months after quitting, depending on testing method.
Responsible Marijuana Use
States that have legalized marijuana have done so under the assumption that responsible use is possible, similar to the role of alcohol in popular culture, and this is certainly true. However, many workplaces still don’t acknowledge this, sticking with age-old operating procedures that aren’t in line with the evolving stance on marijuana in the U.S. As a result, testing positive can mean the loss of a job or a rescinded offer, creating problems for those who use marijuana for any purpose.
If a company is amenable to medical marijuana, always be prepared to present a prescription, similar to the treatment given to other legally prescribed drugs that may appear on a drug test. While asking too many questions about drug use in the job search process can raise red flags for hiring managers, disclosure at the drug testing stage is often to a candidate’s benefit.
Despite the growing normalcy of marijuana in the United States, it will take time for the full elimination of the stigma associated with use. As such, it’s always important to know where an employer stands before pursuing a position.