How would the legalisation of cannabis affect drug testing?

What could the potential legalisation of cannabis mean for roadside and workplace drug testing in Australia? Credit Shelby Ireland

The debate on whether recreational cannabis use should be legalised in Australia is not going away, with those for and against the change mounting cases. As we’ve reported before in our blogs, the potential change could impact drug testing – both on our roads and in our workplaces – so it’s worth keeping an eye on other parts of the world that have made the change to see what impact there may be.

The United States is a particularly interesting example, because some states have legalised cannabis and some still haven’t. According to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, 19 states, one district and two US territories have legalised possession and consumption of cannabis for recreational purposes. In addition, some states have partially decriminalised the drug’s use.

Drug testing in Australia v US

Before we look at what this has meant for workplace drug testing, it’s important to highlight a significant distinction to the way in which testing is approached.

In Australia, workplace drug testing is a safety tool. Most people who face drug testing work in manufacturing, transportation, aviation, mining, agriculture and other industries where safety is paramount.

In the US, however, workplace drug testing is part safety tool, part HR tool. It has traditionally been used across a much wider range of industries and pre-employment testing has traditionally been utilised in part to keep those with drug or alcohol issues off companys’ books.

The COVID-19 impact

Another important backdrop to this story is COVID-19 and the employment issues it has caused. Like in Australia and other parts of the world, there is a labour shortage in the US and businesses are having trouble finding and retaining employees. And it appears the legalisation of cannabis in large parts of the country isn’t helping.

As reported in a Recently Heard article, data from a leading workplace drug testing firm in the US has shown a steady increase in the number of positive tests for cannabis over the past decade. In 2012, around 1.9% of employees tested pre-employment by the drug testing firm failed for cannabis. In 2021, that figure grew to 4.1%. In addition, post-accident tests increased from 2.4% in 2012 to 6.7% in 2021.

It’s a significant increase in the rise of positive tests for cannabis. While the article doesn’t directly blame cannabis reform, it draws the conclusion that the rise in positive tests certainly does coincide with the increase in legalisation of cannabis.

Changes in drug testing practices

Clearly, something must change in the US and there does appear to be some movement away from pre-employment testing for cannabis. Overall, it looks as though the US is heading more towards an Australian approach to drug testing, where it’s carried out for safety rather than HR purposes.

For example, at retail giant Amazon, cannabis has been excluded from its comprehensive pre-employment workplace drug testing program for many positions (although not positions regulated by the Department of Transportation). Amazon has been clear that this doesn’t mean employees are allowed to come to work high on cannabis or use cannabis at work. They will instead treat cannabis much like alcohol and continue to do impairment testing on the job when required.

Lessons for Australian drug testing

Like any significant change, if cannabis is more widely legalised in Australia education will be vital. In the ACT, for example, where use and possession of the drug has already been decriminalized, they’ve been at pains to tell people that the drug driving laws have not changed and that if you’ve used cannabis you shouldn’t drive.

The same message will need to be provided in workplaces. While businesses where safety is a priority can’t and shouldn’t dictate what employees do in their spare time, they have every right to expect – and make sure – employees don’t come to work under the influence.

In fact, it’s not just a businesses’ right, it’s their responsibility under OH&S laws.


What could the potential legalisation of cannabis mean for roadside and workplace drug testing in Australia? Credit Shelby Ireland

By Michael

Michael is the founder of Integrity Sampling and is responsible for overseeing all national operations. He is based at Integrity Sampling's head office in Melbourne and is also responsible for the co-ordination of drug and alcohol testing within Victoria, assisting in the implementation of drug and alcohol (fit for work) policies and the presentation of drug and alcohol education and awareness programs. You can connect with Michael Wheeldon on LinkedIn

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