FOCUS: Voting & Precinct Maps2022 Elections • Housing & Evictions • #MSWelfare Scandal • Jackson WaterAbortion •  Race & Racism • PolicingIncarceration

‘Smoking Something’: Hinds Leaders Blame Staff Shortage on Marijuana Intake 

Photo of Robert Graham sitting at a desk
Hinds County District 1 Supervisor Robert Graham said the county needs to rethink its marijuana testing policy. File photo by Imani Khayyam / Courtesy Jackson Free Press

On May 16, 2022, Hinds County District 2 Supervisor David Archie asked Public Works Director Charles Sims at the board of supervisors meeting why his department is not effectively carrying out its functions. “All over this county, we are in bad shape—when it comes to grass; when it comes to potholes; when it comes to streets being repaved, repaired and fixed; when it comes to cleanliness; when it comes to illegal dumping,” Archie said that day.

Sims answered that the department was facing a staff crisis. “I need personnel,” he said. “No matter what you do, it’s personnel.”

He said they are not witnessing a lack of people coming weekly to fill out job applications. People apply, “but nine out of 10 of them” don’t pass the background check and the drug test, Sims added.

Man in blue suit standing in front of a dark wall and American flag
Hinds County District 2 Supervisor David Archie (pictured) asked Public Works Director Charles Sims on May 16, 2022, what the department needed to enhance efficiency. Photo courtesy Hinds County / Sharon Sims

Hinds County Administrator Kenny Jones agreed that people not passing the drug tests have affected hiring across the county and hindered its operations. “A lot of people that are applying for the jobs that we are trying to do now, they just don’t pass the test, the background test, and that’s not just public works; that’s Henley-Young and everywhere else, maintenance, everything,” he said. “It’s a legitimate problem that we are facing—applications are coming in, but people are not passing.”

“We are trying to work through it, but it’s just not us, it’s everywhere,” he added. “During the pandemic, everybody (was) smoking something. I don’t know what is going on with that.”

The Mississippi Free Press asked Madison County Administrator Shelton Vance if that county was experiencing a similar situation. On May 18, 2022, he sent an email response through Heath Hall, a public relations practitioner.

Vance did not respond to whether drug testing and background checks affect their recruitment efforts. “Madison County has not experienced significant difficulties in recruiting or staffing necessary positions,” he wrote in the email. Madison County has a 58% white population and 38% Black population, whereas Hinds County 73% Black population and 25% white population.

State Incentivizes Employers to Test for Drugs

Crimcheck.net reports that Mississippi does not have any law focused on background checks for potential employees. That means employers follow the Federal Credit Reporting Act.

Background checks help employers confirm past employment and education and any disqualifying criminal convictions, iprospectcheck.com explained. “This process can help employers maintain a safe working environment for their employees and customers and protect against potential liability,” the website said.

a photo of cannabis
Hinds County leaders said many applicants are showing up with marijuana in their system when they apply for jobs, disqualifying them from employment. Photo by Jeff W on Unsplash

Mississippi has a voluntary drug-testing law, which gives employers the discretion to test or not. When an employer decides to test, they must, however, follow the Mississippi Department of Health guidelines.

Former President Ronald Reagan, a strong proponent of a “war on drugs,” signed the Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988 and kicked off the drug-testing practice across the country. The law requires that federal contractors and organizations receiving grants from any federal agency agree to maintain a drug-free workplace.” That includes marijuana, which is increasingly becoming legal across the U.S. in various forms.

In 1997, Mississippi incentivized employers to drug test all intending employees with a 5% reduction in workers’ compensation insurance premium. The insurance covers injuries and death in the workplace.

The Mississippi Legislature said that the 1997 law targets creating drug-free workplaces and aims to increase productivity by reducing the “costs, delays and tragedies associated with work-related accidents resulting from substance abuse by employees.”

‘Hampering a Whole Lot of Hiring’

Hinds County Administrator Jones told the Mississippi Free Press by phone on May 17, 2022, that the impact of applicants failing drug tests is more significant than background-check failures.

“Drug test is hampering a whole lot of hiring,” he said. “Looking at the national trend during the pandemic when people couldn’t go anywhere, and a lot of people started working from home, they increased their intake of recreational drugs like marijuana.”

In 2022, Mississippi passed a medical-marijuana law that provides for the medical prescription of the substance. The legislation does not bar an employer from penalizing an employee for using or being under the influence of medicinal cannabis at work. Drugtimes.org says that marijuana is the viable seeds, flowers and leaves of the cannabis plant, while hemp is the stalks, stems and sterilized seeds.

The 2022 Mississippi law does not stop an employer from disciplining, firing, refusing to hire or otherwise taking adverse employment action against an individual because of the use of medical cannabis, regardless of the individual’s impairment or lack of impairment. It does not limit any employer’s ability to establish or enforce a drug-testing policy.

President Regan signing at a desk with several people looking on
Former President Ronald Reagan signs the Anti-Drug Abuse Act in 1986. Two years later, he signed the Drug-Free Workplace Act. Photo Public Domain, Reagan White House Photographs

Even with the Mississippi Medical Cannabis law, there is still an incentive for employers to implement a drug-free workplace by conducting drug screening for applicants.

In his interview with the Mississippi Free Press, Jones noted that many states now have medical marijuana and that a few have legalized its recreational use. “There are a whole lot of people who are indulging in those drugs, and now we’ve got to go back and look at the policies and change it so that we can be able to hire people that may be given a doctor’s prescription on medical marijuana,” he said.

Headshot of a man in a grey suit with a blue tie
Hinds County Administrator Kenny Jones claims an increased number of people began smoking marijuana during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo courtesy Hinds County

Jones said that with the passage of the medical-marijuana bill in the state, the county might need to reexamine its stance on drug testing for marijuana. Going through that route, the county may have to forfeit the State’s 5% reduction in workplace compensation insurance premium.

At the Monday meeting, Hinds County District 1 Supervisor Robert Graham wondered if it is right to penalize people for doing something legal like using marijuana outside the workplace once the Mississippi law goes into effect. “If it’s legal to do off duty—which the medical marijuana will be—then you cannot stop them or deny them a job or coming to work if they are high ‘in the moment’ as long as they are able to function; and there’s something—an alert meter—that you can actually get to determine that.”

“But it is going to be something that the board makes a decision on because the majority of the people that are applying for jobs in Hinds County, they do have those particular issues,” he added. “If it’s not the background (check), it’s going to be marijuana, so you might get one out of five people to actually pass both to come and be able to come to work.”

Graham said people would get the medical-marijuana cards once it’s available. “Are you going to penalize them for doing something that is legal off-duty? That’s the decision we would have to make,” he said.

The administrator said employees might wonder whether they can still come to work if they obtain their medical-marijuana card.

On Monday, Hinds County Chancery Clerk Eddie Jean Carr said the county has to adjust its policy to not discriminate against a person using medical marijuana that a physician prescribed.

Jones said the county can do little to fill positions and ensure public-service efficiency without revisiting its policy on testing for medical marijuana. “The only thing we can do is to keep on putting out applications and encourage people to apply that know they are not recreational drug users,” he told the Mississippi Free Press. “Because when you apply for a job, you pretty much kind of know if you’re gonna be positive or negative on a drug test.”

“We might have to visit some of the policies that other states have done that had already passed legislation that involves recreational and medical marijuana,” he said. “I don’t have the answer right now, but I know, we’ve got to have to look at something, and our administration is going to have to take some type of action.”

Headshot of Eddie Jean Carr
Hinds County Chancery Clerk Eddie Jean Carr advocated policy change not to penalize workers who get medical-marijuana cards when the Mississippi Medical Cannabis Act goes into effect on July 1, 2022. Photo courtesy Mississippi Chancery Clerk Association

Graham: Exempt Marijuana Testing for Certain Jobs

In a phone interview with the Mississippi Free Press on May 17, 2022, Graham proposed exempting certain job applicants from drug tests for marijuana. “In certain areas where security is not an issue, we may have to rethink our policies as it relates to marijuana since medical marijuana is going to be legal in a very short period of time,” Graham said.

“Let’s just say there’s a person that’s working on the outside, and he’s cutting grass; it’s not a security issue,” he added. “Do you want to deny that person an opportunity to have a job simply because they smoked marijuana?”

Graham theorized that many people used marijuana during the pandemic for stress reduction. “The reason being is people stayed at home, and they didn’t have anything to do, and a lot of them started using medical marijuana or recreational marijuana,” he said.

“I guess it reduced the anxiety level of the people, and I’m not sure (because) I’m not a doctor, I can’t say, but I can just say we had more people testing positive now,” he added. “I would say we would have three out of 10 people testing positive for marijuana before the pandemic; now we would probably get five or six testing positive.” Neither he nor Jones provided documented proof of that increase beyond the statements to the Mississippi Free Press and at the Monday Hinds County Board of Supervisors meeting.

In October 2021, Time Magazine reported that companies are eliminating drug testing amid a labor shortage and reported that Amazon ended screening for marijuana in its drug testing for certain employees in 2021. Amazon employs about 1 million people in the United States.

Amazon Stopped Pre-Employment Marijuana Screening

Amazon Senior Vice President of Human Resources Beth Galetti wrote in January 2022 about the reasons for eliminating marijuana from drug testing.

“First, we recognized that an increasing number of states are moving to some level of cannabis legalization—making it difficult to implement an equitable, consistent, and national pre-employment marijuana testing program,” she wrote. “Second, publicly available national data indicates that pre-employment marijuana testing disproportionately impacts people of color and acts as a barrier to employment.”

Headshot of a brunette women in a white top with blue jacket
Amazon Senior Vice President of Human Resources Beth Galetti wrote that the company had expanded its applicant pool by eliminating pre-employment marijuana testing. Photo courtesy Amazon

“And third, Amazon’s pace of growth means that we are always looking to hire great new team members, and we’ve found that eliminating pre-employment testing for cannabis allows us to expand our applicant pool,” she added. “In addition to following all Department of Transportation regulations, our policy on zero tolerance for impairment while working has not changed.”

“We are enthused by the notable momentum in the country toward recognizing that today’s status quo is unfair and untenable,” Galetti said.

Jobs for Jacksonians Coordinator Jonathan Barnett told the Mississippi Free Press by phone on May 18, 2022, that some employers are willing to overlook a criminal past but have their drug-testing policies cast in stone.

“Within the last 24 months, there are certain companies that may hire an individual who may have a checkered background, so to speak, but I would say what’s more pervasive right now would be the drug screenings of those individuals who may use ‘certain substances,’” Barnett said. “If it comes up on the test, there’s nothing that the company can do (they have their own standards and protocols) as opposed to, say, an individual that may have been incarcerated, kept their nose clean and (is) ready to work.”

District 1 Supervisor Graham told the Mississippi Free Press that there is no way around relaxing the law on testing for marijuana to get people to work for the county. “People smoking marijuana has become more pervasive,” he said. “We’re going to have to relax the laws, that’s the only way around it.”

Comments

Can you support the Mississippi Free Press?

 The Mississippi Free Press is nonprofit, solutions journalism for Mississippians and others who care about the state. 

Our newsroom runs on donations from people who care about Mississippi and this reporting. We thank you for reading and ask for your financial support.

Click the Support button below or at the very top of the site. Your donation will be made through the Community Foundation for Mississippi, our fiscal agent. Thank you!

Can you support the Mississippi Free Press?

 The Mississippi Free Press is nonprofit, solutions-driven journalism for Mississippians and others who care about the state. 

With your help, we can do even more important stories like this one. 
MFP.ms

FREE
VIEW