Marijuana close up
Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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DC Public Schools is now requiring contractors and volunteers to be tested for marijuana as a part of the clearance process. All current and prospective DCPS employees, program partners, contractors, and volunteers need to complete a clearance process, which includes a background check as well as other requirements, before providing services to any DCPS student or school. 

The new policy of drug testing for marijuana, which was announced in late May, concerns some community-based organizations who partner with DCPS to offer after-school programming, because new contractors or volunteers now need to be tested on top of existing protocols. These groups say they already struggle to recruit candidates given the hours and pay. Testing for a substance that is legal in D.C., they believe, will make finding quality staff that much harder. 

Both DCPS and their partners agree that the safety and security of students is of the utmost importance, and that no one should be intoxicated while working with kids. But some organizations worry that drug testing for marijuana only makes the clearance process more cumbersome without accomplishing the stated goal of providing a safe environment to students. Some also believe the new policy discriminates against those who may consume cannabis off the clock. Testing can be unreliable because the standard 5 panel drug urine test that DCPS generally relies on cannot show exactly when weed was consumed. Someone could ostensibly fail a drug test and be penalized, even if they legally smoked or ingested marijuana days, if not weeks, ahead of time. 

According to an email sent by DCPS School Partnerships on May 24, all partner organization staff, volunteers, and contractors are subject to a new clearance process. The new process includes testing for THC (the main psychoactive element of cannabis), along with amphetamines, opiates, cocaine, and PCP. If someone does not pass a drug test, they are not eligible for employment at DCPS for one year, according to education officials.  

Individuals who use marijuana for medical purposes, specifically through D.C.’s medical marijuana program, should not be penalized. DCPS asks that contractors or volunteers submit a copy of their medical marijuana card to the Mandatory Alcohol and Drug Testing team within the agency prior to completing a drug testing form. 

DCPS says it is drug testing workers to fulfill the requirements of a local law that passed nearly two decades ago, but the reasons for implementing the requirement now remains unclear. The Child and Youth, Safety and Health Omnibus Amendment Act of 2004 (CYSHA) created a mandatory drug and alcohol testing program for certain D.C. government applicants and employees. 

DCPS School Partnerships acknowledges that D.C. residents have since voted to legalize marijuana through a ballot initiative in November 2014, but says it remains bound by the constraints of the law. (Congress meddling in District affairs has stymied attempts to legalize sales.)  

“Although Initiative 71 changes the laws of the District of Columbia to make it lawful for persons 21 years of age or older to possess marijuana in certain situations, it does not change DCPS’ obligations under CYSHA therefore, DCPS employees, contractors and volunteers are not permitted to use, possess, or be under the influence of marijuana during their tour of duty,” says the email. 

DCPS officials reiterated the rationale behind drug testing for marijuana during a June 1 webinar about the new clearance process. “Because we are a public school system that is governed by federal law, under CYSHA, we do require drug testing for employment for employees, contractors, and volunteers with possible unsupervised interaction with students for 10 or more minutes,” said Jade Fuller, the director of Labor Management and Employee Relations at DCPS. “Marijuana is still considered an illegal substance federally, so we are drug testing for those items that are considered illegal substances federally.”  

Fuller said DCPS does not perform random drug tests, so the drug testing requirement only applies to new hires or someone suspected of being under the influence while working. Contractors and volunteers could also be subjected to drug testing if their clearance expires, but would not automatically or retroactively. (Clearances are valid for two years.) Fuller also encouraged people who test positive for any drugs to speak to the medical review officer at the lab to discuss results. She says most labs generally email individuals prior to making a determination. “If they don’t talk to them, that’ll give the MRO no choice but to go ahead and release it is a positive result and fail them if they don’t have that opportunity to discuss what happened and why,” said Fuller.  

It’s still not clear why DCPS just decided to drug test contractors and volunteers for marijuana use when CYSHA has been on the books for years. School-based staff had already been subjected to such drug testing, education officials said during the June 1 webinar (this appears to contradict DCist reporting from September 2019 that says teachers would not be tested for cannabis during pre-employment drug testing). It’s also unclear whether D.C. statute or DCPS policy requires education officials to test for substances considered illegal under federal law, but not local. CYSHA simply defines drug as “an unlawful drug and does not include over-the-counter prescription medications.” DCPS did not respond to requests for comment. 

Daniela Grigioni, the executive director of After School All Stars DC, is among those who are concerned about the impact drug testing will have on hiring. After School All Stars offers after-school programming on topics like robotics and cooking, as well as academic and career assistance, in six schools across the District, most of which are in Ward 8. Running at full capacity, After School All Stars serves 600 students and employs 5 full-time staff and 30 part-time staff. 

Grigioni worries that drug testing will be inefficient based on her experience with other compliance processes that took 60 days to fulfill, namely CPR certification. Education officials eventually shortened the length of time for the entire certification process to be fulfilled. Grigioni already heard that the drug testing process can take weeks to complete. “They will not wait that long. They need the money,” Grigioni says of new hires. “When you start telling somebody that they have to wait a month and a half just to know if eventually they are cleared, it’s a hard sell.” 

DCPS relies on private labs for drug testing, with each lab deciding the level of THC that is acceptable, and the process takes an average of 10 to 15 days. But individuals only receive an email detailing actions to schedule a drug test four to six business days after completing the clearance application. Then an individual has 15 days to schedule a drug test. “Labs have varying turnaround times which we don’t have any control or influence over,” Fuller said during the June 1 webinar. “It just depends on how busy the labs are. So there are a variety of factors that could extend the period of time.”

Fuller said DCPS uses urine tests, which cannabis rights advocates say can be imprecise. According to the Marijuana Policy Project, the largest cannabis policy reform organization in the U.S., urine tests generally are unable to show exactly when someone last used weed. “Factors such as frequency, dosage, last time of use, and an individual’s genetic makeup all play a role. As such, marijuana metabolites can linger in an individual’s system for a few days to more than a month,” says Violet Cavendish, the communications manager at MPP.

According to one fact sheet from the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, urine tests can detect weed up to 100 days after use if someone regularly consumes it. They do not detect the main psychoactive component in marijuana, THC. Rather, urine tests detect the non-psychoactive marijuana metabolite THC-COOH, which can linger, making them an ineffective way to measure impairment. And according to a comprehensive review of work-place drug testing from investigators at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, “Urinalysis testing is not recommended as a diagnostic tool to identify employees who represent a job safety risk from cannabis use.”

Community-based organizations often have their own alcohol and drug policies. Grigioni says After School All Stars has a zero-tolerance policy. If someone comes to work intoxicated, they will be fired. New hires have to agree to a code of conduct, and are trained when they are onboarded. There is a supervisor at every site monitoring staff. After School All Stars has only had one employee come to work intoxicated in its roughly nine years of existence, which the organization handled internally. “If someone is using cocaine, heroin or PCP, I don’t want them in front of the kids, period. But it’s very difficult to justify to a staff [member] that is using marijuana legally that they will not be working with you for an entire year,” says Grigioni.

Some child advocates hope DCPS changes its policy of testing for marijuana, or the Council passes legislation so lawmakers aren’t sending mixed messages on cannabis consumption. “Everyone agrees that they would not allow and do not want anyone who’s under the influence to be working with students. But that’s not actually what this policy would do. And there are much better and more effective ways to accomplish that goal,” says Matthew Hanson, the chief of staff of DC Action. DC Action is an advocacy group that focuses on D.C.’s young people. 

“It has the potential to discriminate against people who consume or are exposed to marijuana legally when it doesn’t apply to something like alcohol,” Hanson continues. “In theory, someone can have a couple of beers on Friday night and be totally fine if you have to get this one-time test. But if you consumed or [were] exposed to marijuana three weeks ago, it has the potential to ban you from working from DCPS for a full year, and that does not seem to serve anyone’s interests.”

The announcement comes at a time when public officials are reckoning with the harmful effects that past policies related to cannabis have on Black and Brown people. Mayor Muriel Bowser and Council Chairman Phil Mendelson both proposed legislation earlier this year that would create a recreational cannabis market once D.C. fully legalized marijunana sales, and Mendelson’s bill aims to address the war on drugs head on by directing some tax revenues from sales to communities hit hardest by over policing and mass incarceration. Racial justice advocates have been calling on lawmakers to go farther, including by protecting cannabis consumers from employer discrimination. The Council considered legislation in April 2019 that would prohibit marijuana testing as a condition of employment except for certain positions and unless required by law. The legislation never passed. 

In September 2019, Bowser said many D.C. employees can use marijuana when they aren’t working. “It’s really a recognition that, as we make cannabis use policies for the District of Columbia and its residents more equitable and fair and just and safe, we want our human resources policy to be reflective of those values,” Jay Melder, the assistant city administrator, told DCist at the time. 

D.C.’s alcohol and drug testing requirements depend on how government agencies classify workers. According to Bowser’s mayoral order, applicants for “safety sensitive” and “protection sensitive” positions are subjected to pre-employment drug testing, however only the former may be penalized for testing positive for weed, even if it was used medically. D.C. law defines “safety sensitive” as an employee “that would likely cause actual, immediate, and serious bodily injury or loss of life to self or others” if under the influence of drugs or alcohol. It’s unclear how DCPS applies this 2019 mayoral order.