More Iowa Employers Scratching Weed from Drug Tests


Business owners in Iowa are doing more than ever to find the best employees for the job. They are being more proactive about recruiting, and they are trying to hire workers faster. They are even dropping some drugs from their screening processes in non-transportation, private sector occupations, most notably marijuana, which the state plans to legalize for medical purposes by the end of the year.

James Reidy, a lawyer from New Hampshire specializing in management-side labor and employment, claims that more and more companies have been shifting away from compulsory cannabis testing over the last six months. “But,” he said, “They are not necessarily advertising it.” This is the first big drug policy shift in the workplace since widespread screening began three decades ago.

However, after surveying multiple job placement firms in central Iowa, the Des Moines Register found that, while the move away from weed testing is occurring in the state, it is not that widespread. Kim Kramer, Iowa manager for QPS Employment Group, says that the number of businesses that have scrapped pot screening from the hiring process she can count on just one hand.

Kevin Erickson, regional vice president for Robert Half, a company that places workers in finance, accounting, marketing, and administrative positions, says that of the company’s hundreds of clients, the issue has not even come up. A spokesperson for the Iowa Business Council, a group of executives from the state’s largest companies, says they have not discussed relaxing weed testing either.

Said Kramer of the issue, “What we are seeing in greater numbers, however, are companies who are adjusting their job requirements in other manners, like years of experience, or increasing their pay rates to attract passive job seekers who may be employed but are looking for a higher wage.” Iowa has the hottest job market in the country, having the third lowest unemployment rate at 2.7 percent in May.

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Still, Kramer confesses that Iowa businesses are relaxing their policies around drug testing, even if they are keeping it under the radar. “They are quietly removing these items and restrictions from their policies and pre-employment tests,” Reidy also admitted. “That comes in part because they are still wondering what to do about marijuana use during employment.”

As public attitudes toward cannabis use evolve, it is clear that employers are making policy changes. According to a Gallup poll from October last year, nearly two-thirds of the United States population is in favor of legalizing marijuana. The result, at 64 percent, is the highest ever in the company’s nearly five decades of monitoring the question.

The latest Iowa poll, conducted in January by Des Moines Register and Mediacom, found 58 percent of Iowans against the legalization of recreational weed, less than the 69 percent back in 2014. Only 39 percent support adult use, but it is a whopping increase of 28 percent. Marijuana laws in Iowa are among the most restrictive of all states.

The only patients who can access weed legally are those diagnosed by an Iowa-licensed doctor with one of these health conditions: Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, AIDS or HIV, seizures, multiple sclerosis, cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and epilepsy, as well as those who are terminally ill with untreatable pain and a life expectancy of one year or less. Nobody else.

Interest in expanding the medical marijuana program fizzled during the 2018 legislative session. It is illegal to use cannabis recreationally in Iowa. Across the United States, recreational weed is legal in only nine states and the District of Columbia. Thirty states already have expansive programs in place for medical cannabis, including conservative Oklahoma, whose voters approved it just last month.

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According to Quest Diagnostics, industry leader in testing services, the positive test rate for all drugs in the total United States workforce last year was a steady 4.2 percent. Over the last five years, however, the rate jumped significantly by 3.5 percent. Cases of positive weed tests increased sharply in states where recreational use is legal.

The reality of changing laws even had Alexander Acosta, U.S. Labor Secretary, suggesting that employers relax their stance on drug testing during a congressional hearing earlier this year. “The train has left the station,” Reidy said. The next step will be blanket approval of recreational use by the federal government, even if that leap is “a few years away.”

“And then the next development will be employers and law enforcement finding a reliable test that can determine impairment,” Reidy forecast. In Iowa, Erickson says that employers should focus on other factors, such as those that limit their success in filling available positions, like higher wages, better working conditions, and having realistic expectations.

“No. 1, I think sometimes businesses are looking for candidates that do not exist,” Erickson explained. “Their job requirements do not match what the labor market can produce, and that is with the educational talent being phenomenal. The demand, too, is so great, and sometimes they may need to reset what their expectations are.”

Erickson believes that businesses are not efficient enough in hiring quickly when they find a candidate they like. The job market is aggressive and so they lose them to their competitors. He says that employers are frequently uninformed on the proper wage ranges of qualified candidates and should consider increasing rewards and benefits.

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Kramer added that options for transportation and referral programs are among the most regularly discussed rewards for factory and manufacturing jobs. “The days of reactive recruitment are over, given where the labor market is,” Erickson explained. “You need a proactive recruitment strategy, where people are aware of your brand and what you are looking for before the hiring process.”

As for Reidy, he expects that, if Iowa loosens its laws, cannabis will become part of that strategy. Not only is a more liberal approach preferable in millennial-friendly workplaces, but other drugs, such as opioids, is a much bigger worry for employers. The Quest Diagnostics study seems to confirm this, as it noticed increases in positive tests for both amphetamines and cocaine.

Reidy believes that a cultural wave, one far removed from concern about marijuana and focused more on preventing the use of harmful drugs, is fast approaching. “It is like in the move ‘Jaws.’ If you yell out, ‘Barracuda!’ nobody pays attention,” he explained. “But, if you scream out, ‘Shark!’ the attention is there right away. People are becoming numb to marijuana.”

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