After Hours: Why Isn’t Off-Duty Smoking Like Drinking?

Matt Weeks August 17, 2019 0 comments

Even companies in legal regions view smoking a joint after hours as something they have to police.

Despite widespread legalization, some companies still frown on employees consuming cannabis after hours. But the tight labor market and increased social acceptance of weed may mean businesses that continue to test for THC will see more talent walk away. 

The latest workforce drug testing data from Quest Diagnostics indicates that recently more people than ever before are screening positive for THC in office-mandated testing. Part of the reason for this is that employers are testing now more than ever. Another part is that cannabis is legal in more areas.

If you combine that data with the stats showing the rise in U.S. worker productivity, you could be forgiven for thinking that cannabis legalization directly results in efficiencies. Unfortunately, there are still many companies out there that insist on firing employees for consuming cannabis — even when it’s done off the job.

Cannabis and Companies: Why the Problem?

An article in Occupational Health and Safety is quick to point out why U.S. companies love drug testing. It goes like this: Americans represent five percent of the world’s people but consume 60 percent of the illicit drug supply. When workers use illicit drugs, they’re less productive and lack morale. That means less work is getting done. Plus, bad productivity and morale can metastasize and infect whole sectors of business. So dumping employees who test positive for drugs has a financial benefit for the bottom line.

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after hours

That thinking is straightforward and easy to follow, but there’s just one problem. It’s not true for cannabis. For one thing, the author points out the drugs that are directly responsible for causing this $140 billion per year problem: cocaine, heroin, ecstasy, meth, and prescription pills. Cannabis is nowhere on the list. 

Secondly, this is about employees who abuse drugs. Not those who use prescriptions pills in safe, doctor-recommended ways

Third, using illicit drugs may be an indicator of poor work performance. But it’s far from the only one. Nor is it maybe even among the most important. After all, it’s true that people who cheat on their spouses are more likely to engage in unscrupulous behavior at work. But no firm is hiring private detectives to discover which executives are meeting a mistress after hours. So why do they treat cannabis differently?

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After Hours Consumption: The Differences

Here’s a tale of two workers. An employee stops at a neighborhood bar for a beer after work. After two rounds, she heads home, goes to sleep, and reports in at 8 a.m. for the next day’s grind. The second employee goes home, places a drop of cannabis oil under their tongue, cooks dinner, and goes to bed. By 8 a.m. the next day, he’s at the office coffee maker pouring a cup.

Do you see the difference? While both employees engaged in legal, recreational drug consumption after hours, only one has the blessing of many HR departments. Why? Because of the measurement bias. 

Right now, there’s no good test to determine the level of impairment in people who consume cannabis. For alcohol, it’s very clear. When a driver blows a .11 in a breathalyzer, their blood alcohol content clearly exceeds what society deems to be a safe standard for operating a motor vehicle. If a person’s blood is tested for THC, there’s no way to tell if that person is currently feeling effects from weed or if they’re stone cold sober. That’s partially because THC stays in the system for days (or weeks) after an individual has consumed.

What the Data Shows

So what are companies really trying to discover when they drug test but don’t bother to test for alcohol? 

Are they trying to find employees who may engage in crime? Because when it comes to which drug will make an employee more likely to hurt themselves or someone else, that’s alcohol. By a long shot. 

after hours

Maybe the concern is public relations. They don’t want to employ violent workers. In that case, cannabis is linked to much lower rates of domestic violence than is alcohol. 

Or it could be a safety issue. One study found that when people took cannabis and drove, they were 83 percent more likely to have an accident. That’s pretty rough … until you consider that people who drank alcohol then drove were 2,200 percent more likely to get into a wreck. 

Or maybe companies are worried about their employees. After all, workplace accidents are serious affairs and cause long-lasting damage to a company, its employee, and its reputation. It would make good business sense to cut down on whatever after hours activity leads employees to increase those kinds of mistakes. But states that pass medical cannabis laws see workplace deaths decrease. And alcohol? It makes workplace incidents rise. 

This is the land of the free, and companies that want to drug test employees have that right. But a smart company shouldn’t worry about whether or not a worker lights up after hours. What they should be worrying about are those cocktail-friendly happy hours. That’s where the real trouble lies. 

Author avatar

Matt Weeks

A writer living and working in Athens, GA, Matt's work has appeared in various newspapers, books, magazines and online publications over the last 15 years. When he's not writing, he hosts bar trivia, plays in local bands, and makes a mean guacamole. He holds an undergraduate degree in journalism and a master's degree in organizational theory. His favorite movie is "Fletch."

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