Letters from Maine

Marijuana use is affecting the job market


I have a friend who owns a large paving and excavating company. He currently is turning away large contracts because he can’t find employees to drive his dump trucks and operate his heavy machinery. The situation is so dire that he has begun to explore the possibility of recruiting employees out of the corrections system.

Like much of the country, Maine is experiencing a low level of unemployment that few of us over the age of 50 years can recall. Coupled with a confused and unwelcoming immigration policy at the federal level many small and large companies are struggling to find employees. The employment opportunities my friend’s company is offering are well above minimum wage, paying in the $30,000-$70,000 range with benefits. While the jobs require some special skills, his company is large enough that it can provide in-house training.

Marijuana being rolled into a joint. Doug Menuez/thinkstock
While my friend’s current situation is the result of a perfect storm of economic and political factors, what frustrates him the most is hearing that a significant number of potential employees are scared off when they realize that these good-paying jobs will require them to take and pass a drug test. He has learned of several young men and women who have chosen jobs with significantly lower salaries and fewer benefits simply to avoid taking a drug test.

Maine residents recently have voted to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana. It is unclear exactly how this change in the official position of the state government will translate into a distribution network and a system of local codes. However, it does reflect a more tolerant attitude toward marijuana use. It also suggests that job seekers who are avoiding positions that require drug testing are not worried about the stigma of being identified as a user. They understand enough pharmacology to know that marijuana is detectable days and even weeks after it was last ingested or inhaled. Even the recreational users realize that the chances of being able to pass a drug test before employment and at any subsequent random testing are slim.

The problem is that these good-paying jobs are going unfilled because of the pharmacologic properties of a drug, and our current inability to devise a test that can accurately and consistently correlate a person’s blood level and his or her ability to safely operate a motor vehicle or piece of heavy equipment (“Establishing legal limit for driving under the influence of marijuana,” Inj Epidemiol. 2014 Dec.;1[1]: 26). There is some correlation between blood levels and whether a person is a heavy or infrequent user. Laws that rely on a zero tolerance philosophy are not bringing us any closer to a solution. And it is probably unrealistic to hope that in the near future scientists will develop a single, simply administered test that can provide a clear yes or no to the issue of impairment in the workplace.

I can envision a two-tier system in which all employees are blood or urine tested on a 3-month schedule. Those with a positive test must then take a 10-minute test on a laptop computer simulator with a joy stick each morning that they arrive on the job to demonstrate that, despite a history of marijuana use, they are not impaired.

Even if such a test is developed, we still owe our patients the reminder that, despite its decriminalization, marijuana is a drug and like any drug has side effects. One of them is that it can put limits on your employment opportunities.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff

Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” Email him at pdnews@mdedge.com.

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