The Washington Senate this week approved a bill that would protect cannabis users from pre-employment job discrimination. The measure, Senate Bill 5123, was passed by the state Senate on Wednesday by a vote of 28-21 and will now be considered by the Washington House of Representatives.
Under the bill, employers would be barred from refusing to hire a job candidate based solely on the results of pre-employment screening for cannabis use. The legislation does not include protection for other substances, so screenings for other drugs would still be allowed during the hiring process.
“It comes down to discriminating against people who use cannabis,” state Senator Karen Keiser, the lead sponsor of the bill and the chair of the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee, said in a statement cited by online news site The Center Square. “For people using a legal substance, having a pre-employment test like this is just plain unfair, and we should stop it.”
“At a time when the number of unfilled positions is extremely high, we shouldn’t be limiting our workforce by deterring qualified job applicants,” she added. “This legislation opens the door for people who might otherwise not even apply for a position.”
The legislation does not apply to some jobs including positions in the airline and aerospace industries. The measure also does not apply to jobs that require a federal background check or security clearance.
While the bill protects potential employees from drug tests while applying for a job, Keiser noted that the bill does not prevent employers from subjecting their workers to drug screenings for weed during employment. Under the measure, companies will still be allowed to fire employees who test positive for cannabis in order to maintain a drug-free workplace. Employers could also subject employees to a drug test for cannabis use after a workplace accident or if they suspect a worker is impaired by cannabis while on the job.
“If your employer wants to test you every week after you’re hired, they’re still able to do that,” Keiser said. “This is simply opening the front door of getting into a job. Because too many people who see that they have to take a drug test to even apply, don’t even apply.”
Washington Legalized Recreational Pot In 2012
Washington legalized recreational marijuana in 2012 with the passage of Initiative 502, a ballot measure that was supported by nearly 56% of voters. But while the measure protected cannabis users from prosecution, the initiative did not include protections for workers who use weed off the job.
Nevada became the first state to protect job applicants from pre-employment drug tests for cannabis in 2019. Since then, other states have also passed employment protection measures, including a California bill protecting workers from discrimination based on their use of marijuana while off the clock that was passed last year.
Cannabis advocates who support employment protections note that current drug screenings can only determine the presence of cannabis metabolites, which can remain in the system long after using marijuana. Burl Bryson, executive director of The Cannabis Alliance, told lawmakers at a public hearing last month that potential job candidates can consume cannabis legally “and still test positive … weeks later.”
“If the same approach were applied to alcohol, employers would refuse employment to anyone who enjoyed a beer or a glass of wine on the weekend,” said Bryson. “We all know that this is not a workable standard.”
“It simply doesn’t make sense to base an employment decision on that kind of unreliable outcome and test,” Keiser told her colleagues in the Senate before Wednesday’s vote.
Brian Fitzpatrick, CEO of the cannabis industry compliance platform Qredible, said that there are legitimate reasons for some employers to maintain a drug-free workplace. But he added that “exceptions need to be made, particularly for medical cannabis users, but also for responsible adult users.”
“There are policies that exist that govern not showing up for work intoxicated under the influence of alcohol, and cannabis should be no different,” Fitzpatrick wrote in an email to High Times. “Unlike alcohol, there is research suggesting that cannabis use does not significantly impair job performance, as such, employers should re-evaluate their policies regarding cannabis use to create a more equitable approach to cannabis users.”