Weed? CBD? New Products, New Laws Are Causing Confusion In The Workplace

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From makeup and oils to capsules for stress relief, cannabis-based goods are flowing into the marketplace. But while they may not get you high, they can still cause you problems at work.

Cannabidiol or CBD has been showing up in a widening array of goods. That’s because federal legislation in 2018 deemed that hemp – one of its sources – was not an illegal controlled substance.

But your job could be in jeopardy if one of those products, which are largely unregulated, contains THC, the same compound that causes marijuana users to get high.

Employers are now grappling with CBD use by their employees, while also dealing with the rising legalization of recreational and medical marijuana in states across the country.

It’s not clear how many American workers have been disciplined or fired because they tested positive for THC after using CBD products, but there have been instances and it’s a problem that could grow.

Jeanette Hales, a 58-year-old former school bus driver in Salt Lake County, Utah, is one of those cases. Last month, she was told that a random drug test she’d taken for her employer, the Jordan School District, came back positive.

“I knew right then what was going to happen,” says Hales, who had not been using marijuana but taking CBD to help her sleep and relieve stress. “Five days later they called me in and they gave me the option to be fired or to resign.” She decided to quit.

The school district did not respond to a request for comment.

“In some cases, it’s costing employers good employees, and it is creating conflict because you can imagine … the reaction of someone who is saying ‘Well, I actually abided by the rules,” says Howard Mavity, a partner with the Fisher Phillips law firm.

Farm bill spurs big business
A federal farm bill passed in 2018 legalized some cannabis by stating that when the plants contain less than 0.3% of THC, they would be considered hemp. Plants with more than that amount would be categorized as marijuana, which remains an illegal controlled substance.

Sales of hemp-derived CBD products soared after the legislation’s passage.

But only one of those products, a medication to treat two rare forms of epilepsy, has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, meaning that many have not undergone federal scrutiny.

A certain amount of THC is allowed in CBD products as long as it doesn’t exceed limits set by federal or state law. But it could still trigger positive results on a drug test, which an employer may say is unacceptable. Some products may also claim to be THC-free but inadvertently contain it.

“Somebody may test positive,” says Barry Sample, the senior director of science and technology for the drug testing laboratory Quest Diagnostics. “It’s not the CBD itself that’s the problem. It’s contamination with THC that may be present in the specimen.”

More than two dozen federal law enforcement employees, for example, have faced disciplinary action after testing positive for THC in the wake of using CBD products, says Don Mihalek, executive director of The Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, a nonprofit professional association representing more than 26,000 federal officers.

“There’s no way to differentiate between THC in CBD oil and THC in marijuana,” says Mihalek, who added that many officers have turned to CBD products as an alternative to pain medication. But with federal agencies having zero tolerance for positive drug test results “the agencies can’t afford to play a guessing game.”

The issue has drawn the attention of the FDA.

“In addition to safety risks and unproven claims, the quality of many CBD products may also be in question,” the agency says in guidance posted to its site. “Many were found to not contain the levels of CBD they claimed. We are also investigating reports of CBD potentially containing unsafe levels of contaminants.”

Hales, who drove a school bus for 11 years, did her homework before starting to use CBD.

Though the product did not say it contained THC on its label, she went to the brand’s website and learned it contained 0.1% of that compound, which she says was below the level permitted by the state.

And while CBD was never mentioned in the required drug and alcohol awareness class she and colleagues took, Hales says she checked with her trainer, who told her that using CBD products would not cause her to fail a drug test.

A clerk at the store where she purchased the capsules also told Hales the company that made them tested its own employees after they used the product. None of the results came back positive.

“I really thought I chose a safe product for me and for urine testing,’’ Hales says, remembering that on the day she lost her job, the human resources official she dealt with “spoke to me like I was a drug addict.”

She will be cautious in the future as she searches for a new job.

“I know the value of CBD, and it did for me exactly what I needed it to do,” says Hales. But since she lost her job, “I haven’t touched it. And if I ever use it again, it will only be after I’ve secured employment that doesn’t care about a urine test.”