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More Than 140 L.A. Times Staff Members Demand The Times Stop Surprise Testing New Hires For Weed

It was the summer of 1986, and journalist Jesse Katz hoped to secure a two-year training position with the Los Angeles Times after completing an internship. A year prior, he applied for the same job but was turned down due to inexperience. Facing the same editor, Katz felt just as inexperienced as he was a year ago, but this time, the editor didn’t seem concerned about his resume. After offering him the position, the editor made one necessary disclosure, “I should let you know, we have a policy now of drug testing new employees [for marijuana].”

Katz wasn’t much of a stoner back then, he told L.A. TACO during an interview, but his former roommate was, and he suspected they might have toked up recently. The editor suggested Katz push the test back a few weeks. “We’re not trying to be punitive,” he recalls the editor saying. “This isn’t a gotcha sort of thing.”

Looking back, Katz says the drug testing policy was “stupid” but at the same time “not surprising” given the proliferation of drug testing during the 1980s and 90s. Recently he called the policy “cannabis theater.”

“It seems really antiquated,” he said.

Putting off the piss test put Katz in a “bizarre situation.” He had a job waiting for him, and all he had to do was “wait for the drugs to wear off.” So while he sobered up for about a month, he took a job as a phone book delivery person to pay the bills. When it came time to take the drug test, he passed. A year later, he was hired full-time. 

The L.A. Times has tested some new hires (and sometimes recently promoted employees) for cannabis and other substances for at least three decades. In the mid-1980s, during the peak of the "just say no" era of the war on drugs, you could make a case for testing somebody for weed.

But in 2022?

Medicinal cannabis has been legal in California for more than two decades, while recreational use has been allowed for the past six years. In total, 36 states have made cannabis legal to varying degrees. 

As the legal multi-billion dollar cannabis market has grown, so has the L.A. Times’ weed coverage. In recent years, The Times has assigned reporters to cover everything from bongs to new "consumption lounges." Last week, the paper sent two reporters to cover a  “$295 weed-infused dinner.”

The Times also reports on cannabis from an ethical and policy angle. Ironically, in 2019, they published a piece titled, ‘In the age of legal marijuana, many employers drop ‘zero tolerance’ drug tests.’ The story noted that New York had recently voted to make it illegal for employers to test new hires for cannabis but did not mention the L.A. Times’ own drug test policy. 

Current and former L.A. Times staff say it’s hypocritical to test some employees for cannabis while allowing others to cover the industry and consume cannabis on the job. Reporters that spoke to L.A. TACO for this story said they find the policy inconsistent and ineffective at deterring people from consuming substances while on the job (since employees are not regularly tested). Instead, they say it puts new hires on edge and possibly even discourages people from applying for positions with The Times in the first place.

In a statement, Hillary Manning, spokesperson for The Times, confirmed that the company currently tests for cannabis “for positions that require the operation of a motor vehicle as a regular and customary part of the job or require the operation or repair of mechanical equipment or heavy machinery.” Manning also confirmed that reporters who cover “recreational cannabis consumption are allowed to consume cannabis products for reporting purposes.”

Manning declined to comment on what other substances The Times tests for or what happens if someone tests positive. “While we do not currently plan to change our policy, we remain open to reevaluating it,” Manning said. “We regularly review our employment policies with the interests, well-being, and safety of our employees in mind and to ensure we’re in compliance with OSHA regulations and local, state, and federal laws in all of the communities where we operate.” 

“This is not exactly a big secret in our newsroom,” Matt Pearce, President of the L.A. Times Guild, told L.A. TACO during an interview. “The guild has protested the company's outdated policy for the past year.” 

On top of being outdated, Pearce says there’s a transparency issue. “The drug test is sprung on new hires after they accept the job,” Pearce says. If new hires aren’t asking him about the drug test, he or another guild member generally takes it upon themselves to give folks a heads up. “It’s something that comes as a surprise to people,” Pearce recalled two young POC journalists who recently approached him with concerns about the drug test. “Basically, all I can say is…try and put it off as long as possible.”

In addition to making new hires nervous, Pearce believes the drug testing policy has deterred prospective journalists from seeking employment at The Times. “There are talented journalists that won’t bother applying for a job here.”

In recent years, the L.A. Times Guild has unsuccessfully pushed for the company to get rid of the policy. Last year, the guild sent an open letter to management on behalf of over 140 newsroom employees, demanding that The Times “scrap the drug test.”

“The drug testing policy is inconsistently and arbitrarily deployed,” the letter reads. “Some new employees are asked to submit to a test while others are not. In addition, we have journalists that, in the course of their work, cover cannabis.” The letter points out that Jonathan Gold, the late L.A. Times restaurant critic, famously covered a cannabis-infused dinner ten years ago (years before cannabis was legalized recreationally).

“Making incoming employees pee in a cup, it’s not making us safer,” Pearce said.

The L.A. Times appears to be an outlier among its peers on this issue. Due to state law, businesses in New York City are no longer permitted to test employees for cannabis. That includes all major broadcast networks with headquarters in Manhattan and legacy outlets like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and The New Yorker.

L.A. TACO reached out to POLITICO, the Associated Press, the Washington Post, and the HuffPost about their drug testing policies and reporters from various newsrooms.

A spokesperson for POLITICO said, “We do not do any drug testing at this point.”

The Associated Press and the Washington Post did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story. However, two AP reporters (one hired in the 90s and another hired more recently) confirmed with L.A. TACO that they were not drug tested. According to a Washington Post Guild member, The Post has a history of drug testing new hires but recently suspended its policy during the pandemic.

Asked if HuffPost reporters are drug tested for cannabis or other substances, a spokesperson for BuzzFeed, which owns HuffPost, promptly responded, "No!"

A recently hired writer for The San Francisco Chronicle that regularly drives around the Bay Area to report on the region told L.A. TACO that they were not drug tested before or after being hired.

“In a year where the [L.A. Times] 'apologized' to the Black and Latino community for its racism, it upholds an archaic drug policy that stands as a remnant of a wider system of laws that have done disproportionate harm to Black and Latino communities,” the L.A. Times Guild open letter reads.

Roughly one-third of the L.A. Times newsroom, including a few editors and people currently in management, signed the letter asking The Times to get rid of its policy, but surprisingly, nothing has changed.

According to Pearce and other guild members, in their defense, the L.A. Times has said they maintain a drug testing policy because it saves them money on insurance. “At no point in our conversations have they said marijuana is doesn’t seem to be a policy that is some sort of moral character test. It would not surprise me if our company were doing this to save us money.”

Morgan Fox, Political Director of the National Organization For The Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), told L.A. TACO, Some states and insurance providers offer discounts or other benefits to an employer's workers compensation plans for maintaining a "drug-free workplace" or implementing various levels of drug testing.” Although California is not among those states, Fox said insurance discounts are “likely an industry standard.”

“There's still a really big cultural mindset on the part of the vast majority of employers that it’s potentially dangerous for them to have cannabis-consuming employees,” said Fox. “Employer culture, in general, has been slower to adjust than the laws have.”

“In the newer media companies, it's not an issue since most don't test (and most don't have vehicular or industrial divisions),” an L.A. Times columnist told L.A. TACO. “But in the older companies, it almost exists as a relic that companies all loathe to get rid of because, well, it's been around forever, and it supposedly saves them money.”

Hillary Manning, The Times spokesperson, could not confirm or deny if the L.A. Times receives a discount on insurance for drug testing new hires and declined to comment further than her initial statement.

Stephanie Bozzuto, a 15-year insurance professional and Chair Emeritus of the Risk Management & Insurance Committee (RMIC) told L.A. TACO that in addition to insurers offering discounts, The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OHSA) recommends that companies drug tests. They think it will make the workplace safer, and insurance wants it too.”

Bozzuto confirmed that insurance providers would give discounts to employers who implement various levels of drug testing. Additionally, drug testing can shield companies from workers' compensation claims, Buzzuto says.

As a business owner, Bozzuto agrees that employees should not be intoxicated on the job. It makes sense for employers to drug test employees that operate heavy machinery, such as construction workers. But when it comes to writing? “What creative writer doesn’t smoke cannabis?” Bozzuto asked jokingly. “I’m a little surprised the L.A. Times is doing this.”

Bozzuto points out that drug testing for cannabis is problematic because someone can test positive days, weeks, or in some cases, more than a month after consuming cannabis due to its ability to bind to fat molecules.

So even if someone consumes cannabis during off hours, they may still test positive during the week. Or, as the L.A. Times Guild noted, someone who takes CBD, a byproduct of hemp legal in all 50 states, can test positive for cannabis due to the tiny amounts of THC in CBD. Currently, there isn’t a reliable test that offers an instant reading of cannabis toxicity. There’s also no consensus on what qualifies as “impaired” regarding weed (like there is with alcohol).

Research shows that there isn’t enough evidence to support the theory that cannabis users are at an elevated risk for a workplace injury. In one study from 2020 that looked at the effectiveness of urinalysis, researchers found that “urine tests have poor validity and low sensitivity to detect employees who represent a safety risk.” Drug testing for cannabis will likely reduce the number of tests that come back positive, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to fewer cannabis users. The researchers concluded that “urinalysis has not been shown to have a meaningful impact on job injury/accident rates.”

In response to follow-up questions sent late last week asking if The Times maintains a drug testing policy to save money on insurance, the spokesperson for the company told L.A. TACO, “The main thing we’d want to comment on at this time was included earlier: While we do not currently plan to change our policy, we remain open to reevaluating it.

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