Talent   //   May 24, 2024

Marijuana use up among white-collar workers as companies relax their policies

Last year an overall rise in drug tests positive for marijuana was driven by office workers in industries like finance, insurance and real estate, according to an analysis from Quest Diagnostics, a major testing company in the U.S., including results from nearly 10 million workforce drug tests.

It comes as changing state laws and perceptions around recreational use have prompted employers to tweak their own company policies, but also as a result of their efforts to reduce barriers to attracting and hiring top talent. 

For the first time ever, more Americans are using marijuana every day than they are drinking alcohol, according to a study published yesterday based on data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

“Policies have become more relaxed, and if they haven’t then employers are hearing about it from the candidates,” said Niki Ramirez, founder and principal consultant at HR Answers, a human resources consultancy for small businesses.

Testing in white-collar industries is primarily done pre-employment, and during the pandemic Quest observed a larger shift with employers rethinking how they test for marijuana as they fought for talent amid an extremely tight labor market, said Suhash Harwani, senior director of science for workforce health solutions at Quest Diagnostics. Since then, workforce drug testing for marijuana has continually declined each year across all industries, with the largest decreases in states with laws allowing recreational use.

In recent years major employers like Amazon have changed their policies to exclude marijuana testing in pre-employment screenings for staff who aren’t in positions with safety concerns, (truck drivers, and others operating heavy machinery still take them.)

“Amazon’s pace of growth means that we are always looking to hire great new team members, and we’ve found that eliminating pre-employment testing for cannabis allows us to expand our applicant pool,” a company webpage reads. But it also made the shift to a more uniform company standard due to patchwork state laws.

“Policies have become more relaxed, and if they haven't then employers are hearing about it from the candidates."
Niki Ramirez, founder and principal consultant at HR Answers.

The recreational use of marijuana isn’t federally legal, but is legal in about half of the states, and some states and territories like California, New York and Washington D.C. recently passed laws actually prohibiting employers from testing job applicants in non-safety-sensitive roles for marijuana use as part of their hiring processes. 

While positive drug tests increased in white-collar industries, they actually fell in those with federally-mandated testing and more standard policies, suggesting job seekers may be increasingly confused around what certain employers’ policies will even be, Harwani said.

As an HR consultant Ramirez often reaches out to candidates who decline offers to ask what happened and if they went with another more attractive opportunity, and increasingly hears that being forced to test negative for marijuana was the reason, she said.  

“It’s terribly interesting for us in HR to really work to align policies and practices with the way that society is ebbing and flowing, in a way that of course, is still practical, and you know wouldn’t harm a business,” she said. 

Ultimately, Quest found drug tests positive for marijuana rose the most among workers in finance and insurance jobs, followed by those in public administration and then real estate rental and leasing. Positive marijuana tests among workers in finance and insurance increased nearly 36% to 3.8% in 2023, up from 2.8% the year prior.

Pre-employment testing vs. detecting impairment

Pre-employment testing is most common though some white-collar workers may be randomly tested depending on company policies, Harwani said. But today’s tests can’t determine whether someone is using marijuana on the job and how impaired they are, which is another issue for employers. “Drug testing gives us positivity rates, it’s not an impairment detection mechanism,” Harwani said. 

“Drug testing gives us positivity rates, it’s not an impairment detection mechanism."
Suhash Harwani, senior director of science for workforce health solutions at Quest Diagnostics.

That can be problematic as it relates to job performance and productivity, said Connor Ondriska, CEO of e-learning platform Spanish VIP. “While some individuals may be able to use marijuana responsibly without any adverse effects on their work, others may experience decreased focus, motivation, or cognitive functioning,” Ondriska said. 

“Employers should closely monitor employee performance and address any concerns promptly and constructively through open communication and performance management strategies,” he said. 

Employers relaxing their testing rules should also revisit their drug-free workplace programs Rameriez said. They can start by making employees aware of policies regarding their responsibility to not show up intoxicated or bring substances with them into offices. But employers should also let staff know about resources and support offerings if staff do develop a dependency or more serious substance use issue, she said.

“I think the more we allow open conversations about drugs, it helps us be more compassionate employers,” she said.