Some New Mexico Employers Struggle To Find Drug-Free Workers

By McCarton Ackerman 10/07/16

The growing medical marijuana industry in New Mexico may play a key role in the testing issue.

Some New Mexico Employers Struggle To Find Drug-Free Workers

New Mexico has long struggled with a shortage of jobs in the state, but a number of employers have revealed that they’re struggling to fill existing positions because they can’t find qualified candidates who are able to pass a drug test and background check.

The state ranks second in the country for both unemployment (as of last month) and overdose rates (as of 2014, the last year statistics were available). Although the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions doesn’t collect data pertaining to unfilled jobs due to drug-testing issues, enough anecdotal evidence exists to show that the problem is statewide and especially problematic with entry-level positions.

“At a branch meeting the other day, we had 47 open positions and it will take three to four weeks to fill them, if we’re lucky,” said Jalayne Wineland, an Albuquerque-based operator of three staffing companies that place temporary employees, to the Albuquerque Journal. “Everyone is fighting for the same group of entry-level workers who will pass the tests.”

Wineland noted that in her experience, prospective candidates failing a background check due to a DUI conviction is far more prevalent than ones who fail a pre-employment drug test.

The growing medical marijuana industry in New Mexico is also exacerbating the issue, particularly for companies who are required to abide by federal regulations. Wayne Moss, president of Innovative Moving Systems, recalled having to recently fire a long-time employee who used marijuana for chronic back pain, but didn’t have a medical cannabis card. “It’s like your kid,” he said. “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed.”

However, New Mexico’s dilemma is also a national issue. Recent data from lab testing company Quest Diagnostics shows that just over 4% of their 9.5 million drug tests last year came back positive. Marijuana was the most common substance.

But while employers often cite growing tolerance to drug use or even moral failings for why some candidates can’t pass a drug test, some point to people self-medicating as a way to address other challenges.

“We see lots of communities self-medicating because of the dire straits they’re in,” said Emily Kaltenbach, director of the New Mexico office of the Drug Policy Alliance. “We need to look at the poverty that exists in the state, as well as the mental health resources available.”

Kaltenbach also suggested that employers evaluate the need for drug testing in their company, noting that in many cases, what people do during their off hours doesn’t impact their professional life.

“In general, we feel that drug testing is an infringement on personal privacy,” she said. “The context is important. Is the employer hiring a school bus driver, or is it an occupation where drug use in private life wouldn’t be a problem? We need policies that are rooted in science and public health, not fear and punishment.”

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.

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