Seyfarth Synopsis: California voters gave the green light to recreational use of marijuana with the passage of Prop 64. Marijuana users may have felt like they struck Acapulco Gold, but a review of the law on drug testing in the workplace may turn out to be a buzzkill.

When can an employer drug test its employees?

Last November, California voters passed Proposition 64—the Adult Use of Marijuana Act. The new law permits individuals over the age of 21 to possess up to one ounce of marijuana or eight grams of marijuana concentrates. California households, regardless of how many people reside there, can grow up to six plants at a time.

But Prop 64 also expressly protects an employer’s right “to enact and enforce workplace policies pertaining to marijuana.” In other words, despite Prop 64, employers may still prohibit their employees from using the sticky icky. This good news for employers who want to maintain drug-free workplace policies may leave some employees dazed and confused.

Employers have had the right to narrowly craft drug testing policies to meet their needs. Reinforcing that right are Prop 64’s drug-free workplace carve-out and the fact that ganja use remains illegal on the federal level. It remains the case, however, that drug testing may affect an employee’s privacy rights, which create limits on when an employer may drug test.

California courts have used a balancing test to determine whether a drug test is legal for existing employees. Courts weigh the employer’s basis for testing versus the employee’s expectation of privacy. The nature of the test, the equipment used, the manner of administration, and its reliability are factors a court may consider in determining whether a drug test is permissible.

If an employer has an objectively reasonable suspicion that an employee is using drugs, then a drug test is likely permissible, especially when there is a threat to workplace safety. California employers generally have authority to eradicate potential harm to their business and their employees’ safety.

Note: Stay tuned for next week’s blog post on random drug testing by employers.

How should the employer notify employees about its drug testing policy?

If an employer plans to drug test, it should distribute to employees a clear drug policy before employees are subject to testing. The policy should explicitly prohibit the use of marijuana and notify employees of the circumstances in which a drug test would occur. This type of notice may decrease a drug testing program’s intrusion on an employee’s privacy interests.

Some employers may choose to educate employees about how marijuana lingers in one’s body beyond the time the “high” wears off. Because cannabis remains in a person’s system longer than other drugs, it’s possible for an employee to test positive for marijuana use that occurred during non-working time. A marijuana test, unlike an alcohol test, will not indicate whether the test subject is under the influence at the time of the test. Rather, a drug test may show THC in the bloodstream that has resulted from marijuana use days, weeks, or even months before the day of the test.

Under the federal Controlled Substances Act, marijuana continues to be a Schedule I controlled substance whose use and possession is illegal. For that reason, employers remain within their rights to maintain drug free-workplaces that exclude marijuana. In addition, federal contractors, under the federal Drug-Free Workplace Act, must establish drug-free workplaces.

Employers generally have the right to institute an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), which allows an employee who has failed a drug test to attend an assistance program to help curb a substance abuse problem, or to place an employee in a supervised position and withhold certain privileges during a probationary period. Whatever policy an employer enacts, the policy should give employees clear expectations about the situations in which the employer will exercise its right to conduct a drug test for cause.

Is an employer exposing itself to risk by drug testing employees?

Drug testing employees may give rise to claims by employees for disability discrimination, invasion of privacy, and defamation. In addition, employers who fail to uniformly apply drug testing policies risk exposure to a discrimination suit under the Fair Employment and Housing Act. An employer must not single out protected categories of employees for drug testing.