D.C. Public Schools Starts Screening Staff And Volunteers For Cannabis

As part of new hiring protocols, D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) will now test all current and prospective employees for cannabis, including program partners, contractors, and even volunteers. 

The new policy, first reported by Washington City Paper, adds to an already substantive security clearance process required to work for DCPS that involves a background check, fingerprinting, tuberculosis screening, and other requirements.

Candidates who fail the drug test will be barred from working for D.C.’s public school system for one year unless they are registered medicinal cannabis patients in or outside the District, according to the agency’s website.

District law has technically mandated drug and alcohol testing for employees in “safety sensitive” positions since 2004. However, it’s unclear why DCPS is only now choosing to enforce cannabis testing, several years after consumption was fully legalized in the District.

Ward 4 Councilmember Charles Allen on Thursday slammed the agency’s decision, requesting additional information in an open letter to Chancellor Lewis Ferebee. 

“We believe that this is simply bad policy, but we are also concerned about the legal justification that we have for the new policy,” Allen wrote.

In the letter, Allen questioned why DCPS “is just now attempting to come into compliance with a statute passed more than 15 years ago.” He added that D.C. law does not regulate volunteers, and applies strictly to paid employees.

Allen also raised concerns that cannabis testing will add an extra hurdle for parents of color seeking to volunteer in schools: “Adding an additional requirement for drug testing would add cost and additional barriers for volunteers, just at a time when the demand for volunteers in schools will be at its highest.”

Allen threatened to challenge the new policy through legislative action at the D.C. Council. 

“If DCPS does not reverse this new clearance process, we will put forth emergency legislation at our next meeting to exclude volunteers and THC from DCPS’ new testing plan,” he wrote.

DCPS has so far justified the new measure as an effort to comply with federal law. 

“Marijuana is still considered an illegal substance federally, so we are drug testing for those items that are considered illegal substances federally,” said Jade Fuller, DCPS’s director of Labor Management and Employee Relations, at a webinar on June 1.

But the timing of the new policy, which was announced in late-May, could prove awkward as it runs contrary to a broad legislative push –– both locally and federally –– to lift restrictions on cannabis. The D.C. Council is reviewing two separate bills to legalize recreational cannabis sales. Meanwhile, the House of Representatives is considering legislation to decriminalize and deschedule cannabis as a controlled substance.

The decision by DCPS also bucks a national trend that has seen workplace drug testing decrease among U.S. employers. From the late 1990s to the mid-2000s, the number of companies requiring drug tests dropped from 80% to roughly 50% nationwide, according to the Los Angeles Times. That trend seemed to continue this week with the announcement that Amazon, one of the largest employers in the country, will no longer test job applicants or employees for cannabis.

D.C.’s policy on cannabis use for city employees hasn’t always been clear. But in 2019, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser issued an order to clarify that District employees were allowed to use cannabis outside of work hours. The order states that District agencies cannot create their own rules or prevent a prospective employee from getting a job for using cannabis.

The directive does, however, include some caveats, specifying that employees in “safety-sensitive” positions are “subject to random drug testing, including for the presence of cannabinoids.” 

Advocates argue that screening employees for cannabis is problematic because the substance can remain in the body for up to several weeks after it was ingested. As a result, job applicants can be denied a position and employees can be terminated for off-the-job use.

Research shows that consuming cannabis outside of work hours doesn’t have a direct correlation with employee performance. In a 2020 study published by Occupational Medicine, researchers found “no evidence that cannabis users experienced higher rates of work-related injuries.”

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