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In tight job market, some companies drop marijuana testing

This is how tough it is to hire these days: To fill jobs, some employers have stopped testing for marijuana.

Companies don’t like to talk about it. Several employers who reportedly no longer test for cannabis either wouldn’t respond or were unwilling to go public. Nursing homes and hospitals don't want patients and their families to know their caregivers may use cannabis after work. Accounting firms don't want to look bad in front of clients. Manufacturing facilities don't want to draw workers who think they can come to work high.

But with the Buffalo Niagara unemployment rate nearing 4 percent and the number of unemployed people near a 30-year low, it is an open secret that some companies – maybe even many – have stopped testing for marijuana.

Two employment agencies, Acara Solutions and StaffBuffalo, say they have recommended the elimination of cannabis testing to employers as a way to expand the pool of candidates without sacrificing quality. Drug testing is particularly a problem with passive candidates – employed people who aren't seeking a new job, but who companies hope to lure away.

When companies are prodded to drop the test, "Typically their response is, 'We've been thinking about this for a long time. Let us talk to our legal team,' " said Chris Beckage, senior vice president of the north region for Acara, a global staffing agency based in Buffalo. "Nine times out of ten, they come back and say OK."

Relaxing the testing requirements has paid off, Beckage said. Those companies have brought more talent on board and had "productive results," he said.

It's not that employers are ditching drug tests altogether. Instead, they are opting for what's called a four-panel drug screening. That screen tests for the presence of amphetamines, cocaine, opiates and Phencyclidine, which is a hallucinogen also known as PCP. Those substances are usually undetectable in urine after just a few days.

There are some positions for which cannabis testing will always be required. Cannabis can slow a worker's reaction time, impede decision making, impair coordination and distort perception, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

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The Federal Department of Transportation requires cannabis and other drug testing among "safety-sensitive workers" such as pilots, truck drivers and people who work at nuclear power plants. The Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988 requires companies to maintain a drug-free workplace to gain federal contracts or grants.

Even companies that have dropped drug testing for employees in certain positions have maintained it for employees in others, such as those operating heavy machinery. They have also reserved the right to test any employee once they take a job, and on-demand drug tests can pop up if, say, an employee crashes a forklift, Beckage said.

In New York City, forcing employees to test for cannabis could soon be illegal under a bill approved last week by the City Council. It would be the first law of its kind, although discriminating against cannabis users is illegal in Maine. If signed into law, employers could still test for safety sensitive jobs and test employees who appear to be under the influence.

Some employers have taken an intermediary step on pre-employment testing, giving employees a 30-day window to complete their tests – enough time to get the substance out of their systems.

The pre-employment drug test has been an assumed part of hiring for 30 years. As many as 3.1 percent of job applicants tested positive for marijuana in Western New York in 2017, according to Quest Diagnostics' Drug Testing Index.

States where recreational cannabis is legal have seen double-digit increases in positive marijuana screens. Sometimes, candidates will ask whether an employer tests for cannabis and, if they do, the job seeker will dismiss that potential employer, said Beckage of Acara Solutions.

"It is a candidate’s marketplace, which means that candidates are very picky about the companies that they choose to become a part of," said Maggie Shea, managing partner at StaffBuffalo.

Attitudes about marijuana are changing and they're changing fast.

More than 60 percent of Americans are in favor of legalizing marijuana – twice as many as in 2000, according to a recent survey by Pew Research Center. More than half of the states have legalized marijuana for medical purposes, and 10 states plus the District of Columbia have legalized it for recreational purposes. It's also available just a short drive over the Peace Bridge in Ontario, thanks to Canada's passage of the Cannabis Act.

Cuomo had hoped to include the legalization of marijuana in this year's state budget, but couldn't get it together in time. Lawmakers have said they are still pushing to change the law by the end of the legislative session in June.

Use of marijuana is up, too, especially among older Americans. Those ages 50 and older are 20 times more likely to use it than they were 30 years ago, according to a paper published in the journal Addiction.

But marijuana is often also accepted among young, skilled professionals employers are trying desperately to attract.

"Potential employees are looking for a cultural fit, not just a job, and want to work at a company that fits their values," said Shea at StaffBuffalo. "Marijuana testing is a red flag that the company may not be as progressive as the potential employee would be looking for in a future employer."

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