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.
Photo courtesy of Markus Spiske
Missouri Launches Medical Marijuana Sales At State’s First Dispensaries
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.
I was honored to watch Larry, a cancer survivor, and his wife Sue, an RN, make the state’s first legal medical cannabis purchase this morning in St Louis. @mocanntrade @NewApproachMO pic.twitter.com/rCudrkdbfI
— Jack Cardetti (@jackcardetti) October 17, 2020
“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.”
“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.”
— Mo Health & Sr Srvcs (@HealthyLivingMo) October 17, 2020
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 wait is finally over! Tomorrow morning at 9am @NBlissCannabis will open the doors to their Ellisville and Manchester locations for the first medical marijuana sales in Missouri! Congrats to the whole N'Bliss team! The #MOMMJ industry is up and running! pic.twitter.com/wyZIcoyLBv
— MoCannTrade (@mocanntrade) October 16, 2020
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.
Illinois Continues Record-Breaking Marijuana Sales Streak, New State Data For September Shows
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.
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.
California Governor Approves Changes To Marijuana Banking And Labeling Laws
California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed a handful of marijuana bills into law on Tuesday, making a series of small adjustments to the nation’s largest legal cannabis system. More sweeping proposals such as overhauling the state’s marijuana regulatory structure will have to wait until next year, the governor said.
Among the biggest of the new changes are revisions to banking and advertising laws. With many legal marijuana businesses are still unable to access financial services, Newsom signed a bill (AB 1525) to remove state penalties against banks that work with cannabis clients.
“This bill has the potential to increase the provisions of financial services to the legal cannabis industry,” Newsom wrote in a signing statement, “and for that reason, I support it.”
Democrats in Congress, meanwhile, have been working for months to remove obstacles to these businesses’ access to financial services at the federal level. A coronavirus relief bill released by House Democratic leaders on Monday is the latest piece of legislation to include marijuana banking protections. Past efforts to include such provisions have been scuttled by Senate Republicans.
In his signing statement on the banking bill, Newsom directed state cannabis regulators to establish rules meant to protect the privacy of marijuana businesses that seek financial services, urging that data be kept confidential and is used only “for the provision of financial services to support licensees.”
Another bill (SB 67) the governor signed on Tuesday will finally establish a cannabis appellation program, meant to indicate where marijuana is grown and how that might influence its character. The system is similar to how wine regions are regulated.
Under the new law, growers and processors under the new law will be forbidden from using the name of a city or other designated region in product marketing unless all of that product’s cannabis is grown in that region. Similar protections already apply at the county level.
For outdoor growers, the new law recognizes the importance of terrior—the unique combination of soil, sun and other environmental factors that can influence the character of a cannabis plant. For indoor growers, it provides a way to represent a hometown or cash in on regional cachet.
Most of the other new changes that the governor signed into law are relatively minor and will likely go unnoticed by consumers. One, for example, builds in more wiggle room on the amount of THC in edibles (AB 1458), while another would allow state-licensed cannabis testing labs to provide services to law enforcement (SB 1244).
The bills were approved by state lawmakers earlier this month, as the state’s legislative session drew to a close.
Other pieces of cannabis legislation passed by the legislature this session were met with the governor’s veto. On Tuesday, Newsom rejected a proposal (AB 1470) that would have allowed processors to submit unpackaged products to testing labs, which industry lobbyists said would reduce costs. Currently products must be submitted in their final form, complete with retail packaging. Newsom said the proposal “conflicts with current regulations…that prevent contaminated and unsafe products from entering the retail market.”
“While I support reducing packaging waste, allowing products to be tested not in their final form could result in consumer harm and have a disproportionate impact on small operators,” Newsom said in a veto statement.
Those changes to testing procedures should instead be considered next year, Newsom said, as part of a pending plan to streamline California’s cannabis licensing and regulatory agencies.
“I have directed my administration to consolidate the state regulatory agencies that currently enforce cannabis health and safety standards to pursue all appropriate measures to ease costs and reduce unnecessary packaging,” he wrote. “This proposal should be considered as part of that process.”
Newsom also last week vetoed a bill (AB 545) that would have begun to dissolve the state Bureau of Cannabis Control, which oversees the legal industry. In a statement, the governor called that legislation “premature” given his plans for broader reform.
“My Administration has proposed consolidating the regulatory authority currently divided between three state entities into one single department,” Newsom wrote, “which we hope to achieve next year in partnership with the Legislature.”
Earlier this month, the governor signed into law one of the industry’s top priorities for the year—a measure (AB 1872) that freezes state cannabis cultivation and excise taxes for the entirety of 2021. The law is intended to provide financial stability for cannabis businesses in California, where taxes on marijuana are among the highest in the nation.
The state’s leading marijuana trade group, the California Cannabis Industry Association (CCIA), applauded the governor’s moves. All the bills approved by Newsom this week had the industry group’s support.
“We thank Governor Newsom for prioritizing these bills, which seek to reduce regulatory burdens, improve enforcement, expand financial services and enhance the state’s cannabis appellation’s program,” CCIA Executive Director Lindsay Robinson said in a message to supporters on Wednesday. “Like so many, the cannabis industry has faced a series of unexpected challenges and setbacks in 2020. We look forward to continuing to work with the Newsom Administration, and the Legislature, as we pursue a robust policy agenda in 2021.”
Image element courtesy of Gage Skidmore