The D.C. Council on Tuesday voted to block D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) from requiring blanket drug tests––including cannabis screenings––for prospective volunteers and contractors.
In a drawn-out legislative meeting that started three hours behind schedule, the emergency bill passed 10-2, with Ward 2 Councilmember Brooke Pinto and Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie voting no, and At-Large Councilmember Christina Henderson abstaining.
Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen spearheaded the effort to pass the bill following recent reports that DCPS had quietly added cannabis testing to its hiring protocols.
The DCPS policy change drew immediate backlash from after-school groups and legislators who worried that testing for pot—a legal substance in the District since 2014—would complicate recruiting efforts while creating new hurdles for parents looking to volunteer.
“Right now, coming out of the pandemic, we need our communities to come together to support our students,” Allen told the council on Tuesday. “We don’t need residents to be punished for marijuana use the district government has already told them is legal.”
Earlier this month, Allen wrote to DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee, slamming the new testing requirements as “simply bad policy” and threatening to take legislative action in a letter co-signed by the entire council.
Ferebee replied on Monday, one day before the vote, asking the council to hold off on the emergency legislation to allow for “appropriate time for input from families and educators.” In his letter, the chancellor said DCPS would be open to eliminating all drug tests for volunteers, but did not support removing cannabis tests for contractors.
“These adults are paid to be in schools and are more likely to be alone with children without supervision from DCPS personnel,” Ferebee said. “Given their specific roles and time spent with children, we believe that continuing to require pre-service drug screening is an appropriate level of review for partner organization employees.”
Despite Ferebee’s objections, the council pushed forward with the vote. Under the new law, DCPS can no longer require any kind of pre-employment drug test for volunteers. Paid contractors can still be screened for drugs as part of the hiring process, but not for cannabis. There is one exception to the new rules: DCPS can test both volunteers and contractors for drugs if there is “reasonable suspicion” that a person is impaired on the job.
The rules only apply to DCPS, and do not prevent agencies like the Office of the State Superintendent––which certifies some contractors for childcare in D.C. public schools––from requiring drug tests. Similarly, it doesn’t block pre-employment testing required by federal law.
Allen said passing the emergency bill was necessary to stop DCPS from adopting a new policy without due notice. He called for further debate.
“I think we should have a larger conversation about this issue––and there may be room for nuance,” he said. “That’s exactly why I think we moved this legislation.”
The emergency bill now heads to the mayor’s desk. If signed, it will expire within 90 days, though the council will probably seek to pass a more permanent version of the legislation.
It’s still unclear why DCPS changed its drug testing policy in the first place. Initially, officials said they wanted to comply with a 2004 law that requires drug testing for D.C. employees in “safety-sensitive” positions.
But many questioned the decision to only now start enforcing that law, several years after the District legalized cannabis and amid a concerted push to authorize recreational pot sales. The decision also contradicts a 2019 order by Mayor Muriel Bowser that says D.C. agencies cannot create their own rules or prevent a prospective employee from getting a job for using cannabis.
Advocates have long said that standard urine drug tests are unreliable because they can’t detect how recently cannabis was consumed, and don’t correlate with impairment. Research shows that tetrahydrocannabinol, the main psychoactive compound in cannabis, can remain in the body for up to several weeks after ingestion.
According to NORML, D.C. is one of several U.S. cities that have passed laws protecting recreational cannabis users from job discrimination, including Atlanta, New York City, Philadelphia, and San Francisco.