Marijuana
11:24 am
Thu June 19, 2014

Colorado Employers Review Drug Policies In Light Of Marijuana's Legalization

Some employers in Colorado are reviewing the drug and alcohol policies after recreational pot became legal in 2012.
Credit Marci Krivonen

Summer in Aspen not only means warm weather and crowds, it also means businesses are hiring. The resort has a seasonal economy and, some companies are reviewing their drug and alcohol policies now that marijuana is legal in Colorado. It's causing some confusion for employers and raising questions for human resources departments. Aspen Public Radio's Marci Krivonen reports.

Since marijuana became legal for adults in Colorado, Alicia Miller has been getting a lot of questions from employees at Aspen Valley Hospital.

"They’re kind of, I don’t want to say hyper-sensitive, but they’re very sensitive to the changes in the community and in the state. People have asked more questions, which is a good thing because it’s good to know how to notify people and what to look for," she says.

Miller is the Human Resources Director and she says the hospital’s policy regarding drug use has not changed because marijuana is still illegal under federal law. The hospital’s 400 employees, including the nurses, administrators and cafeteria workers, get a drug screening when they’re hired and the hospital will order a test "for cause."

"So, if somebody appeared impaired or showed any type of impairment like red eyes or judgement issues, or if we had concerns of any type," says Miller.

Now hospitals in Colorado are considering implementing random drug testing. AVH doesn’t plan to follow suit. Kimberlie Ryan is a Denver attorney specializing in employment and civil rights. 

"I’ve really seen probably three different types of employers, or types of responses," she says.

Many of her clients have been fired for violating drug policies at their jobs. Even now that marijuana is legal, she says a number of employers are keeping the same policy. Most are in a gray area, exploring what’s best for their company and workers. Others are strengthening their policies.

"So, some of those are entrenching and it’s almost like a backlash - I’m noticing those people are becoming more inflamed about it and maybe more aggressive with their employees."

She says Amendment 64, which legalized recreational marijuana, carries more protections for employees than the medical marijuana measure Amendment 20, which passed in 2000. As a general rule, Ryan recommends workers not test their employer’s policy.

"I don’t think that it’s really necessarily safe for someone to say, ‘okay, I’m going to use it on Friday knowing that my employer has a very strict, zero tolerance policy,’ because really at this point, while I believe that the law recognizes their constitutional rights to do this, they would still have to establish that by filing a lawsuit against their employer when they get fired."

One large, statewide employer - the Colorado Department of Transportation - is responding to legal pot by tweaking its employee drug and alcohol policy. Nancy Shanks is a CDOT Communications Manager.

"There might be some minor changes in language but the core policy fundamentals will stay the same," she says.

So-called “safety sensitive” CDOT employees like snowplow drivers are subject to a host of drug screenings, including pre-employment, random, post-accident and possibly, follow-up tests. Desk job workers face reasonable suspicion testing. Shanks says the new law brings up new questions.

"It’s like, what constitutes reasonable suspicion? What does that look like now for someone who is impaired by marijuana versus someone who is drunk. I think it’s just new territory for many employers."

The Aspen Skiing Company, is one of the Valley’s biggest employers, with 600 year-round workers and 150 summer employees. Spokesman Jeff Hanle says the company’s drug and alcohol policy hasn’t changed. There are random pre-employment drug tests and post-accident screenings.

"Really what it’s about is looking for impairment on the job. So, we have and still do use the U.S. Department of Transportation thresholds for impairment and that’s across the board for alcohol, marijuana or any drug you have."

Last year a Colorado Appeals Court ruled employees who use medical marijuana can be fired even if they’re not impaired on the job. Now the State Supreme Court is reviewing the case called Coates versus Dish Network. Their decision, which could set a precedent, is expected later this year.