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Federal Workplace Drug Testing Proposal Could Discriminate Against People Of Color

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A newly proposed federal rule would expand workplace drug testing programs by allowing certain employers to collect and analyze samples of workers’ hair, a move critics say would lead to disproportionate job-related punishments for people of color.

Federal agencies can already test workers’ urine and saliva, which provide evidence of more recent drug use, but “hair testing potentially offers several benefits when compared to urine, including directly observed collections, ease of transport and storage, increased specimen stability, and a longer window of drug detection,” the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) argued in a notice of proposed rulemaking published in the Federal Register on Thursday.

If adopted, the change would affect thousands of government employees as well as private workers in certain federally regulated industries such as those who work in transportation or at nuclear power plants.

Drug reform advocates are skeptical about the move.

“It’s shameful that these harmful federal drug testing guidelines are even being considered again,” Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, told Marijuana Moment. “Not only is hair follicle testing discriminatory against people of color due to its sensitivity to melanin and darker hair, it gives no indication of someone being impaired on the job. This just goes to show how far behind the federal government is on cannabis policy.”

Paul Armentano, deputy director for the advocacy group NORML, said it is “mind-boggling that, in 2020, SAMHSA is considering expanding federal drug testing guidelines.”

“Hair follicle testing is highly problematic,” Armentano said. “A positive test, even when confirmed, provides neither evidence of behavioral impairment nor recent drug exposure. Moreover, the sensitivity and accuracy of the test is highly variable.”

Because hair exists outside a person’s body, for example, it’s more vulnerable to contamination—including secondhand smoke and other chemicals—than other sample types. That can put workers at risk of false positives unless results are checked through another testing method.

“Arguably most problematic,” Armentano said in an email, “is the reality that these tests discriminate against certain ethnicities because it is influenced by melanin content and is thus more sensitive to those with darker hair—while far less sensitive to those with gray hair.”

Other factors, such as humidity and hormones, could also affect test outcomes, Armentano added.

SAMHSA in its proposal acknowledges that numerous studies “provide scientific evidence that melanin pigments may influence the amount of drug incorporated into hair,” as well as that hair products more commonly used by people of color could lead to false positives. “As noted,” the filing says, “the Department wishes to solicit feedback on scientific studies comparing drug results and hair color and comparing urine to hair.”

The proposal is the latest effort by SAMHSA to expand federal drug screening to include specimens besides urine, including hair, saliva and even sweat. SAMHSA initially floated the idea of hair-based testing in 1997, and the agency put forward a rulemaking proposal along those lines in 2004. Regulators ultimately rejected that proposal amid concerns over accuracy, but SAMHSA has pursued the plan ever since. In recent years, the agency expanded testing to include saliva.

Unlike urine and saliva, hair can take up to a week to show evidence of drug use, rendering it especially useless as a measure of a worker’s immediate impairment. SAMHSA is proposing that hair testing be used only in pre-employment drug screening and random testing—not in cases where workers are suspected of recent use.

In an effort to protect workers from false positives and ensure that hair tests hold up in court, the proposal includes a directive that an alternate specimen, such as urine or saliva, be collected in order to verify a positive hair-test result. “This two-test approach,” SAMHSA’s summary says, “is intended to protect federal workers from issues that have been identified as limitations of hair testing, and related legal deficiencies.”

Marijuana-related cases, however, may not qualify for that additional layer of scrutiny. “The Department is specifically requesting comments, including support from the recent scientific literature, on whether hair tests that are positive for the marijuana analyte, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol-9-carboxylic acid (THCA), should be excluded from the requirement to test an alternate authorized specimen,” the proposal says.

Workers, some labor unions and even a Federal Drug Testing Advisory Board (DTAB) member have criticized the SAMHSA proposal as misguided, warning that the proposal is getting away from the science.

As reported in the trade publication Freight Waves, which covers the shipping and logistics industries, independent truck drivers are opposed to the rule, citing bias toward hair color and texture as well as a general lack of evidence that hair testing would improve driver safety. Major trucking companies, however, generally support the change.

DTAB member Michael Schaffer criticized the rulemaking process as “fatally flawed” because the board was left out of discussions.

“This means that these proposed guidelines were developed without the expertise needed to ensure that they are scientifically accurate and defensible,” said Schaffer, a toxicologist at a drug-testing lab, according to a Freight Waves report. “I fear that these proposed guidelines are going to unnecessarily restrict the use of hair drug testing, an incredibly effective tool at detecting drug use, for reasons which have no scientific basis.”

Armentano at NORML said that doubling down on a testing procedure that could exacerbate racial disparities simply doesn’t make sense, especially given today’s political climate.

“Given the heightened awareness surrounding the need for social and racial equity,” he said, “the idea of proposing a testing procedure that will inherently deny more people of color opportunities than it would others who have engaged in exactly the same activities is beyond tone deaf and counterproductive.”

SAMHSA estimates that about one percent of the 275,000 drug tests it expects federal agencies to do every year will be for hair specimens. When it comes to workers in jobs regulated by the Department of Transportation, the agency anticipates that 1.53 million of a total 6.1 million drug tests will be hair-focused. For nuclear workers, 15,000 of 150,000 total tests would be of hair specimens.

“These projected numbers are based on existing annual pre-employment testing that currently occurs in the regulated industries and current hair testing being conducted,” SAMHSA wrote

The agency is accepting public comments on the proposal through November 9.

This story was updated to add comment from Lee.

FDA Teaches Marijuana Growers And Researchers How To Protect Trade Secrets From Competitors

Photo courtesy of Markus Spiske

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Ben Adlin is a Seattle-based writer and editor. He has covered cannabis as a journalist since 2011, most recently as a senior news editor for Leafly.

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State Of Montana Launches Online Hemp Marketplace To Connect Buyers And Sellers

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Say you’re a Montana farmer who has planted acres of industrial hemp. As harvest nears, you’re looking to offload it. Where do you go to find a buyer?

Montana’s Department of Agriculture says it has the answer.

The state this week announced the launch of an online “Hemp Marketplace,” unveiling an online portal meant to connect the hemp farmers with buyers in search of seeds, fiber and derivatives such as cannabidiol, or CBD.

“The Hemp Marketplace concept originated from the same idea as the department’s Hay Hotline,” the Agriculture Department says on its website, “only instead of hay and pasture, the online tool connects buyers and sellers of hemp and hemp derivatives.”

Listings are free of charge.

Montana online Hemp Marketplace screenshot

Montana Department of Agriculture

Montana farmers have embraced industrial hemp since the state legalized its production under a federal pilot program. The first legal crop was planted in 2017, and in recent years the state has led the country in terms of space dedicated to the plant. In 2018, for example, licensed farmers in Montana grew more acreage of hemp than any other U.S. state. While other states have since eclipsed the state’s hemp production—the crop became broadly federally legal through the 2018 Farm Bill—Montana remains an industry leader.

But to make revenue, farmers have to be able to sell their crop. That’s where the new hemp marketplace comes in. The online portal is essentially a sophisticated bulletin board for buyers and sellers, split into “Hemp for Sale” and “Hemp to Buy” categories.

“With hemp being a relatively new crop grown in Montana, the department recognizes that these markets are still developing,” Department of Agriculture Director Ben Thomas said in a statement. “The Hemp Marketplace was designed to help facilitate connections between buyers and sellers. I’m looking forward to seeing how the marketplace will continue to advance the industry.”

Listings include what type of products are on offer (or being sought), whether a given crop is organic and even whether laboratory testing data is available. The portal also organizes products into one of four varieties based on whether the hemp seeds have been certified by regulators. None of the products may contain more than 0.3 percent THC—the upper limit for what qualifies as hemp under both state and federal law.

Meanwhile, Montana voters are set to decide on Tuesday whether the state will legalize hemp’s more infamous cousin, high-THC marijuana. According to a poll released this week, passage looks likely: The survey, conducted by Montana State University at Billings, found that 54 percent of likely voters plan to support legal cannabis on the ballot. Another 38 percent said they were opposed, while 7 percent remained undecided.

At the federal level, officials at the Drug Enforcement Administration are still working to revise rules around marijuana and hemp to reflect Congress’s move to legalize hemp broadly in 2018. While the public comment on the proposals closed earlier this month, nine members of Congress cautioned the agency against adopting its proposed changes, warning some could put hemp producers at risk of criminal liability. Already a number of arrests and seizures have been made by law enforcement officers confused whether products were legal hemp or illicit marijuana.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), meanwhile, has faced separate criticism over its own proposed hemp rules, though it has been more proactive in addressing them. Following significant pushback from the industry over certain regulations it views as excessively restrictive, the agency reopened a public comment period, which closed again this month.

USDA is also planning to distribute a national survey to gain insights from thousands of hemp businesses that could inform its approach to regulating the market.

Montana Marijuana Legalization Ballot Measure Has Solid Lead In New Poll

Photo courtesy of Brendan Cleak

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Missouri Launches Medical Marijuana Sales At State’s First Dispensaries

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Less than two years after Missouri voters approved a ballot measure to legalize medical marijuana, dispensaries made the state’s first cannabis sales to patients on Saturday.

N’Bliss Cannabis opened the doors of two separate St. Louis County locations, in Ellisville and Manchester.

“Missouri patients have always been our north star as we work to implement the state’s medical marijuana program,” Dr. Randall Williams, director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, said in a press release. “We greatly appreciate how hard everyone has worked so that patients can begin accessing a safe and well-regulated program.”

Officials have touted the speed with which they have gotten the voter-approved cannabis program off the ground, saying it is “one of the fastest implementations of a medical marijuana program in the United States.”

Via Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.

“A tremendous amount of work has occurred by the licensed facilities and our team to get us to this point, and we continue to hear from more facilities that they are ready or almost ready for their commencement inspection,” Lyndall Fraker, director of the Section for Medical Marijuana Regulation, said in a press release. “We look forward to seeing these facilities open their doors to serve patients and caregivers.”

The impending launch of sales on Saturday was first announced by the Missouri Medical Cannabis Trade Association on Friday and reported by The Springfield News-Leader.

The state, which has so far licensed 192 dispensaries and expects most of them to open their doors by the end of the year, posted an interactive map that tracks the status of approved medical marijuana businesses.

For months, regulators have been caught up in lawsuits and appeals challenging their licensing decisions, with revenues that would otherwise go to supporting veteran services instead being allocated to covering legal costs.

Missouri isn’t the only state to see medical cannabis sales launch this weekend. Virginia’s first medical marijuana dispensary also held its grand opening on Saturday.

Meanwhile, recreational sales of marijuana rolled out in Maine last week—four years after voters there approved a legalization ballot measure.

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Illinois Continues Record-Breaking Marijuana Sales Streak, New State Data For September Shows

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For the fifth month in a row, Illinois is again reporting record-breaking marijuana sales, the state Department of Financial and Professional Regulation announced on Monday.

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, Illinois has seen escalating cannabis sales month-over-month. In September, consumers purchased more than 1.4 million marijuana products worth a total of nearly $67 million. Almost $18 million of those sales came from out-of-state visitors.

In August, the total sales reached about $64 million—the previous monthly record. The new adult-use sales figures don’t include data about purchases made through the state’s medical cannabis program.

This latest data seems to support the notion that the state’s marijuana market is “recession-proof” and “pandemic-proof,” as a top regulator said in August.

Via IDFPR.

State officials have emphasized that while the strong sales trend is positive economic news, they’re primarily interested in using tax revenue to reinvest in communities most impacted by the drug war. Illinois brought in $52 million in cannabis tax revenue in the first six months since retail sales started in January, the state announced in July, 25 percent of which will go toward a social equity program.

“We were not doing this to make as much money as fast as we possibly could,” Toi Hutchinson, senior cannabis advisor to Gov. J.B Pritzker (D), said. “We were actually doing this for people,” with a focus on supporting communities most impacted by the drug war.

In May, the state also announced that it was making available $31.5 million in restorative justice grants funded by marijuana tax revenue.

That said, ensuring an equitable market as promised hasn’t been easy. Regulators have recently faced lawsuits after dozens of would-be social equity licensees were denied an opportunity to participate in a licensing lottery over alleged problems with their applications. The state said it would approve 75, but only 21 ultimately qualified—and critics complain that the resources it takes to submit an acceptable application creates barriers for the exact people the special licenses are supposed to help.

The governor announced last month that new procedures would be implemented allowing rejected applicants to submit corrected forms. But on Monday, three investors who are finalists from the initial round filed a lawsuit against the state, alleging that the administration’s decision to permit resubmissions was politically motivated and illegal.

For now, the out-of-state sales data seems to support Pritzker’s prediction during his State of the State address in January that cannabis tourism would bolster the state’s coffers.

Prior to implementation, the pardoned more than 11,000 people with prior marijuana convictions.

Over in Oregon, officials have been witnessing a similar sales trend amid the global health crisis. Data released in August reveals that the state saw about $106 million in medical and recreational cannabis sales, marking the third month in a row that sales exceeded $100 million.

Vote For Marijuana Legalization Referendum To Promote Social Justice, New Jersey Governor Says

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