Em­ploy­ers re­ject­ing pot users will pay a price

Woonsocket Call - - Opinion - McAr­dle is a Bloomberg View colum­nist.

In Youngstown, Ohio, the em­ploy­ment prob­lem is not a short­age of jobs. Nor is it a short­age of work­ers. The prob­lem is not stingy em­ploy­ers who don't want to pay enough to at­tract good work­ers. Nor is the prob­lem that po­ten­tial work­ers are too busy play­ing video games to show up for their job in­ter­views.

So what's the trou­ble? The only thing stand­ing be­tween will­ing em­ploy­ers and will­ing work­ers is a drug test.

Un­for­tu­nately, these aren't jobs where you can say up­tight, mor­al­iz­ing em­ploy­ers are pry­ing too deeply into the pri­vate lives of their em­ploy­ees. They're in­dus­trial jobs where the risk of ac­ci­dents — po­ten­tially fa­tal ac­ci­dents — is high. Em­ploy­ers can­not run the risk of peo­ple show­ing up in­tox­i­cated and killing them­selves or their co-work­ers. Even if they were will­ing to run their work­place that way, safety in­spec­tors and in­sur­ers wouldn't let them.

But is an em­ployee re­ally a dan­ger to oth­ers be­cause he smokes a lit­tle pot on week­ends? Well, while it's easy to as­sume that these tests are mostly pick­ing up ca­sual pot smok­ers, one em­ployer told the New York Times that half of the fail­ures aren't for pot, but for other sub­stances. Sub­stances like heroin and co­caine tend to clear the sys­tem pretty quickly, so some­one who can't pass a sched­uled drug test is rais­ing some se­ri­ous red flags. This per­son couldn't stay sober for even a few days?

But what about pot? Should em­ploy­ers re­ally be test­ing for it? It can linger in the sys­tem for con­sid­er­ably longer than opi­ates or co­caine, so peo­ple who would never take drugs at work or pose any dan­ger to their co­work­ers may well flunk the test. The tests are still screen­ing out some peo­ple who might be dan­ger­ous — but you're go­ing to get a lot of false pos­i­tives. This is why em­ploy­ers rarely test urine for al­co­hol, even though it's pos­si­ble to do so; while this would elim­i­nate most al­co­holics — who can be just as dan­ger­ous as drug ad­dicts in an in­dus­trial work­place — it would also elim­i­nate nearly ev­ery­one else ex­cept Mor­mons.

So why do em­ploy­ers test for a drug that many peo­ple use so­cially? Be­cause un­til very re­cently, pot was il­le­gal ev­ery­where in the U.S. That makes a drug test a rea­son­ably good proxy for a trait that psy­chol­o­gists call "con­sci­en­tious­ness," one of the Big Five per­son­al­ity traits.

Peo­ple with high lev­els of con­sci­en­tious­ness are more likely to fol­low the law, even if the laws against mar­i­juana use are not as thor­oughly jus­ti­fied as those lim­it­ing opi­ates or stim­u­lants. So un­der our cur­rent laws, while many per­fectly nor­mal and oth­er­wise law- abid­ing peo­ple smoke mar­i­juana, the group "mar­i­juana smok­ers" prob­a­bly con­tains a high­erthan-nor­mal con­cen­tra­tion of folks who don't have such high re­gard for rules — rules like, say, never com­ing to work high.

It's of­ten ar­gued that drug tests aren't very good at screen­ing out drug ad­dicts, given how quickly most sub­stances leave your sys­tem, and how easy it is to cheat the tests. But even if that's true, em­ploy­ers may be­lieve that they are worth the cost, in money and lost work­ers, be­cause they fil­ter out the kind of peo­ple who are will­ing to break the law to use drugs. But as the laws change, that will present em­ploy­ers, in­sur­ers and reg­u­la­tors with a prob­lem.

Le­gal mar­i­juana may never be­come as ubiq­ui­tous as al­co­hol in our so­ci­ety, but it will cer­tainly be­come more com­mon if le­gal sanc­tions con­tinue to erode. The num­ber of peo­ple who are ad­dicted to mar­i­juana (yes, that is pos­si­ble) will rise. So will the num­ber of peo­ple who smoke a joint or eat an ed­i­ble a few times a year. Screen­ing out the first group will be­come in­creas­ingly costly to em­ploy­ers as the num­ber of good, re­spon­si­ble work­ers in the sec­ond group in­creases.

If mar­i­juana us­age be­comes suf­fi­ciently com­mon, then that cost will be too high for em­ploy­ers to keep test­ing for cannabis. Em­ploy­ers, in­sur­ers and courts will have to ca­pit­u­late to the new real­ity, and look for other ways to keep work­places drug-free. That may slightly raise the risk of work­place ac­ci­dents. But thank­fully, it will prob­a­bly lower the risk that good work­ers get locked out of the job mar­ket.

Me­gan McAr­dle Bloomberg View

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