Washington State Senators Approve Marijuana Employment Protections And Social Equity Bills In Committee
A Washington State Senate committee on Tuesday approved bills to provide employment protections for adults who use marijuana and promote social equity in the cannabis industry.
While Washington was among the first states to legalize marijuana for adult use, lawmakers continue to work to improve upon the law, including by recently passing legislation in committee earlier this month to prepare for eventual interstate cannabis commerce following federal reform.
The Senate Labor & Commerce Committee advanced the employment bill from the panel’s chair, Sen. Karen Keiser (D), as well as the equity measure from Sen. Rebecca Saldaña (D), in voice votes on Tuesday.
Keiser’s bill would prohibit employers from discriminating against most job applicants for off-duty marijuana use or for testing positive for non-psychoactive THC metabolites.
Members adopted a substitute from the sponsor ahead of the vote that makes modest revisions, including clarifying that the anti-discrimination policy would only apply to pre-employment drug testing and that while employers can still test for all controlled substances, they just can’t punish an applicant over marijuana.
The legislation says that the legalization of adult-use marijuana in the state in 2012 “created a disconnect between prospective employees’ legal activities and employers’ hiring practices,” adding that most drug tests only detect inactive THC metabolites that can be in a person’s system for weeks after use.
There are some caveats to the proposal. For example, it wouldn’t preclude an employer from using drug tests that can detect active impairment from marijuana.
It also says that the reform wouldn’t affect “the rights or obligations of an employer to maintain a drug and alcohol free workplace, or any other rights or obligations of an employer required by federal law or regulation.”
The committee defeated a proposed revision to exempt people in safety sensitive positions from the workplace protections reform.
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Meanwhile, the panel also approved legislation that’s meant to enhance the state’s social equity program for the marijuana industry.
It seeks to accomplish this through several means, including changing the way that regulators are authorized to approved additional equity licensees. The Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB) would be able to add equity retailers to the program based on population trends, and those retailers could be located in any municipality that allows marijuana businesses to operate, rather than being confined to a specific location that the board assigns.
The bill would also amend the statutory definition of a “disproportionately impacted area” (DIA), which is used to assess equity license applications.
Under a substitute adopted ahead of the committee vote, DIA would be defined as a census tract or geographical area “within Washington state where community members were more likely to be impacted by the war on drugs.”
The areas would have to meet at least two of four criteria: 1) the “area has a high rate of people living under the federal poverty level,” 2) “area has a high rate of people who did not graduate from high school,” 3) “area has a high rate of unemployment” and/or 4) “area has a high rate of people receiving public assistance.”
Additionally, the legislation would amend the definition of a social equity applicant to mean a business with at least 51 percent ownership by people who meet at least of two of the following criterion: 1) have lived in a DIA for at least five years between 1980 and 2010, 2) has faced a cannabis-related arrest, or have a relative who faced such prosecution, 3) earned an income prior to submitting the application that is less than the Washington State median and/or 4) is “both a socially and economically disadvantaged individual.”
Lawmakers approved an amendment to the substitute to increase the number of marijuana processor licenses that regulators could accept from 65 to 100.
Another amendment that was adopted would make it so LCB wouldn’t have the sole authority to approve additional social equity retailers; instead, it would need to be handled by the legislature.
Members rejected an amendment to require LCB to “assess cannabis retailer licenses based on one license per 15,000 residents statewide” and have the board conduct and public analyses on market demand for retailers.
The panel voted against another proposed revision that would have mandated that regulators “assess cannabis retailer licenses based on one license per 15,000 residents statewide” and also “conduct and publish certain analyses and request the legislature increase retailer licenses if it determines new licenses should be made available.”
Further, members voted against an amendment that would have required the board to promulgate a rule stipulating that any move to add retailer licenses accounts for “adequate dispersion of such licenses and whether there is a sufficient market to support new licenses.”
And an amendment to extend the timeline for annual fee waivers for social equity licensees from December 31, 2025 to December 31, 2029 was also defeated.
The bills now head to the Senate Rules Committee for consideration before potentially moving to the floor.
The Labor & Commerce Committee separately took up measures on Tuesday that deal with allowing the sale of cannabis “waste” and revising LCB’s subpoena authority.
Meanwhile, state lawmakers are again considering drug possession penalties and related issues this session.
Following a state Supreme Court decision in February 2021 that invalidated the state’s felony law against drug possession, lawmakers enacted a temporary criminalization policy that is set to expire on July 1. Some lawmakers want the state to formalize a policy of decriminalized possession, but others want to maintain criminalization.
Bipartisan Washington State senators also recently unveiled a revised bill to legalize psilocybin services for adults.
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Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.