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For employers, marijuana still a fireable offense

Smoke a legal joint and you might get fired.

Inhale a small amount a week before an interview and you could get rejected for a new job.

Pot may be legal starting July 1, but consumers need to realize that a celebratory toke could come at a price, and smoking it could still bring jail time if cops catch you going for a joyride.

Pot is still illegal under federal law and is listed as a Schedule 1 drug, in the same category as heroin. That designation creates potential legal and regulatory challenges going forward, although there is some indication of softening on the federal level, and there have been some discussions about rescheduling marijuana.

Employers can still hire or fire someone if a drug test shows positive for cannabis. The Oregon Supreme Court already has decided this issue in favor of employers under the medical marijuana laws, although it hasn’t been tested yet under Ballot Measure 91.

“We will continue to treat it the same way as we do now,” says Mike Snyder, human resources director for the city of Medford.

A medical marijuana patient who was fired after failing a drug test can’t get his job back, the Colorado Supreme Court recently ruled.

Many companies and government agencies conduct drug testing as a condition of employment. Other companies conduct routine testing, particularly in jobs that require the use of heavy machinery.

Snyder says the city will update its policy in light of the legalization of recreational marijuana, alerting employees that they still must adhere to the city’s no-tolerance rule on drugs.

New hires will undergo drug testing as a condition of employment. Some employees who use heavy equipment will continue to be subject to random drug testing, Snyder says. If there is reasonable suspicion that employees are impaired on the job, they could be tested as well.

As it is with drunken driving, being high on pot can get motorists in big trouble with the law. The Medford Police Department has nine drug-recognition experts trained to determine what type of drug is impairing a motorist.

Unlike other drugs, marijuana stays in users' systems long after the high has worn off. Depending on their metabolism and how much they smoked, users can carry detectable amounts of pot in their bodies for weeks, possibly months, after the last time they used it.

Dr. Timothy Wilson, Asante’s medical director of work health, says testing procedures will remain the same after July 1.

Most of the 500 Southern Oregon employers who test through Asante typically request an 11-panel test that checks for oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine, marijuana, cocaine, amphetamine, ecstasy, barbiturate, benzodiazepine (such as Valium or Xanax) and propoxyphene (pain pills such as Darvocet).

So far, Wilson says, “nobody has asked us to not test for marijuana.”

Wilson says his department conducts urine drug tests as a condition of employment. Also, he conducts federally required drug testing for commercial and bus drivers as well as random drug testing for employers who suspect someone is impaired on the job. Testing is sometimes required at the time of an accident in a company vehicle. A typical test costs about $30 to $40, he says.

Of all the drugs tested, metabolites of marijuana will show up days or weeks after using pot, Wilson says. Other drugs taken just a few days before the test will have left the system completely. Marijuana metabolites — not the chemicals that make you impaired — remain in fatty tissues and are slowly leached into the system. Hair analysis can detect marijuana that was consumed months earlier.

A new type of testing is on the horizon that will be similar to a breathalyzer for alcohol and will detect whether someone is impaired by marijuana, Wilson says. It will be up to the state to decide at what level someone is considered impaired, he says.

Even with a breathalyzer that can detect marijuana, employers likely will continue to request the current testing that can reveal whether marijuana metabolites are in someone's system, Wilson says.

One scenario Wilson expects to see more frequently in the future is people who unwittingly breathe second-hand marijuana smoke at a party or an event. He says they may be surprised when they show positive for marijuana but will protest they never smoked it.

“We’re going to have an uptick in these type of scenarios,” he says.

Wilson says the claim that ingesting or smoking a lot of marijuana won't prove fatal is generally true, but mixing pot with pharmaceutical drugs could have dangerous effects on people's cardiovascular systems.

He says claims that cannabis can cure a variety of ailments are generally not supported by the medical community.

“All the claims about marijuana haven’t been examined by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) testing process,” he says.

He says that like cigarettes, marijuana shouldn’t be smoked by those with respiratory ailments.

In addition, the federal government lists marijuana as being as addictive as heroin or LSD and finds it’s even more addictive than oxycodone or morphine, he says.

Marijuana supporters have disputed the federal government’s listing of marijuana along with heroin as a Schedule 1 drug — the most dangerous classification. 

Bob Mayers, chief executive officer of Adroit Construction Co. in Ashland, says his company’s rules are pretty strict when it comes to drug use.

“These guys are working with power equipment,” he says. “The last thing you want is somebody impaired.”

Adroit conducts pre-employment testing, and any employee involved in an on-the-job driving accident has to immediately submit to a drug test.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com. Follow on Twitter at @reporterdm

Pot may be legal on July 1, but consumers need to realize smoking it may come at a price. Mail Tribune illustration / Jamie Lusch