The D.C. Council on Tuesday unanimously voted to advance a bill barring most employers from testing job applicants for cannabis, except when hiring for positions that require an extra degree of safety.
The measure, introduced last year by Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White, was approved by all 13 members of the council’s Committee of the Whole, and is now scheduled for a full vote in May.
If passed, the bill would make it an “unlawful discriminatory practice” for D.C. employers to require a weed screening as a condition for employment. In general, employers could no longer fire, refuse to hire, or suspend workers for using weed off the clock – whether for medical or recreational reasons. However, employees could still be disciplined if they show signs of impairment while on the job that could affect their performance or health and safety duties.
There would also be exceptions for “safety-sensitive” positions such as police officers, construction workers, childcare workers, medical workers, and any position “with the potential to significantly impact the health or safety of employees or members of the public.” Federal employers could also continue to screen for cannabis since the substance is still banned at the federal level.
According to a report by the council’s Committee on Labor and Workforce Development, the main purpose of the bill is to “address the disconnect between the District’s legalization of cannabis and its employment laws.”
Though D.C. legalized the use of medical cannabis in 2010 and of recreational cannabis in 2015, many employers still require prospective employees to take a five-panel drug test that checks for THC – the psychoactive compound in weed – along with more potent drugs like cocaine, meth, opiates and PCP.
A general ban on workplace weed screenings could make waves on D.C.’s job market, where drug testing is standard practice. A recent study by the American Addiction Centers found that the District has the highest number of jobs (2,220) that require pre-employment drug testing.
The council report noted cannabis testing is a “very complicated issue” given that weed is used by some workers for medical purposes, but also has the potential to interfere with employee performance and workplace safety.
“It’s important to strike a balance between an employer’s interest in a safe and healthy working environment and employees’ rights as individuals and their medical needs,” the report said.
The committee also acknowledged cannabis testing is a poor measure of impairment, and can’t accurately distinguish between a person who is currently high and someone who may have used weed several days, even weeks ago. “There is currently no objective test to determine cannabis impairment.”
Additionally, the committee looked into the discriminatory nature of cannabis testing, noting that it primarily takes place “in lower-wage, in person jobs held predominately by Black and Latino workers.” It cited a 2013 study by the Yale School of Medicine that found 63% of Black workers were employed at workplaces that tested for weed, versus just 46% of White workers.
It’s not the first time that D.C. lawmakers weigh in on cannabis testing at the workplace. Last June, the council voted to block D.C. Public Schools from requiring blanket weed screenings for volunteers after DCPS officials quietly changed hiring protocols to include cannabis tests. In 2020, the council also passed legislation that created workplace protections for District government employees who use cannabis for medical reasons. One year before that, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser issued an order stipulating that District agencies can’t create their own rules around cannabis or block applicants from getting a job for weed use.