Drug testing for marijuana in the workplace, especially when other substances such as alcohol are not considered, is oppressive at its best and racist at its worst.
For decades, marijuana has been used as a tool to reinforce racist and oppressive narratives in the United States. While marijuana was legalized for recreational use in Oregon in 2016, discrimination against marijuana users is still very much present in the workplace: a result of continued racial prejudices and unmerited discrimination.
A study by the American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry found racial profiling still occurs, concluding workplaces with higher numbers of racial and ethnic minority employees also had increased reports of drug testing, putting those groups at risk of being fired if they are marijuana users.
Laws restricting marijuana began in the 1910s following the Mexican Revolution in an attempt to deport and criminalize immigrants in large numbers. Marijuana laws continued to be used against various groups of people throughout the 20th century. Richard Nixon’s war on drugs was directed toward the “antiwar left and Black people,” according to a top Nixon aide.
Legalizing marijuana did help to eliminate discriminatory anti-marijuana enforcement policies in Oregon. However, discrimination has not been eliminated in the workplace.
According to the Society for Human Resource Management, about one-half of HR departments in the U.S. test for marijuana before hiring an employee. The study also noted the most cited consequence for first-time marijuana policy violation in the workplace is termination. Even though recreational marijuana is legal in Oregon, employers can still legally drug test their employees and terminate them for positive results or choose not to hire those who do not pass the drug test.
This is legal because there are no federal laws regulating drug tests by private employers. These sorts of protections come from the state level and, so far, Oregon does not have any regarding marijuana.
In 2017, 3.9 percent of all drug tests administered in Oregon came up positive for marijuana use—the highest rate in the nation. Depending on where you work, a positive drug test can get you fired.
Drug testing policies are potentially ableist. Notably, in Oregon, having a medical marijuana card does not protect an employee against being fired or punished for a positive drug test. This is unfair to medical users with chronic pain and other medical issues who use the drug at home to manage their illness. This is a public health concern.
There have been concerns raised on this matter: A 2017 bill was introduced in the Oregon Senate that would prevent employers from firing workers who use marijuana off the clock. It died in a matter of months.
There are currently restrictions in place for alcohol testing in the workplace. If an employer did test employees for alcohol consumption, there would likely be cries of outrage. Where is the outrage when employers across Oregon test for another legal recreational drug? If there isn’t a penalty for using alcohol, a drug with no positive health effects and a substantially higher risk of dependency, marijuana use should not still be considered a fireable offense.
Using marijuana privately at home doesn’t affect work performance as long as it’s done responsibly. Oregon policymakers should be taking steps toward de-problematizing the drug to reinforce safer work environments for Oregon employees. Personal and legal choices at home should not be grounds for workplace termination.