Tuesday, November 15, 2016

When Did We Decide That?

I’ve been looking hard at barriers to middle-wage employment lately, both for personal interest and in service of Brookdale’s goal of rebuilding the middle class in Monmouth County.  And I stumbled over one that has left me confused, and that I hope my readers can help me understand.

We know already about skills gaps, especially in high-tech fields.  We know about incarceration rates, and we have some sense of their effects on the close family members of the incarcerated.  We know about economic cycles.  And every area has its own local factors unique to it; here, they include the loss of a military base and the fallout from Hurricane Sandy.

But in reading up on election results, I was struck by another one.  Without ever really having the conversation, as a society, we seem to have decided to outsource the war on drugs to private employers.

Referenda legalizing marijuana for recreational use passed in several states, having already passed in several others.  It’s legal for documented medicinal use in many more, and I’m told that getting the relevant documentation is less strenuous in some places than others.  The culture seems to be saying, albeit in stages and regionally, that it has better things to worry about.  

But during the same period that many state legal barriers have fallen, employer drug screening has become widespread.  

In talking with some local employers about the gaps they’re struggling to fill, I’ve heard repeatedly that the single biggest barrier to finding good people is getting candidates who can pass a drug test.  Tests snag an alarming number of people.  That’s especially true in the jobs that don’t require graduate degrees but that do pay pretty well, such as the skilled trades.  

It used to be that the state was tough on drug users, but employers mostly didn’t care as long as you were sober at work.  Now, at least with pot, it’s almost the other way around.  I don’t remember us ever consciously making that decision, at least as a culture.

It’s hardly news that America is deeply confused about what it thinks of drug use.  Even now, in the states where it’s legal, federal law still bans it, which leads to some odd business practices around banking.  Critics of the drug war have noted, correctly, that attitudes towards opiate abuse changed shortly after the heroin epidemic caught on among white people.  The opiate epidemic itself seems to have been the byproduct of legal prescription painkillers made popular in the 90’s.  The ebb and flow of drug fashions, and the correlation to demographics, offers plenty of fodder for sociologists.  That’s not new.

But the growing disconnect between public law (the state) and private law (employers) on the consequences of marijuana use seems to be ignored in policy discussion, even as it’s obvious on the ground.  

It’s not something that job training programs can fix.  We can train scads of people and do it well, but if they fail their drug tests, we can’t do anything about that.  (In fact, we get indirectly punished for it, since job training programs are judged on placements and salaries.)  As near as I can tell, employer testing is either mandated (pilots) or optional; I don’t think it’s banned anywhere.  It seems to be growing.  

I’ve been reading about adult men, ages 25-54, having the lowest labor force participation rate since we’ve tracked the numbers.  And I’ve been hearing employers complain about people failing drug tests.  And I’ve been watching public support for pot legalization grow,  And I’m thinking, hmm.

Should curbs on employer drug testing be part of the economic development conversation?  

Without that, we’re flooring the accelerator and the brake at the same time, which just throws everyone around and doesn’t get us very far.  

I might be off-base on this, and that’s fine.  My concern is that I don’t recall us ever even having the conversation, and the new system is having devastating effects on the ground.