Editorial: Casual drug use is causing a labor crisis

Published on Monday, 31 July 2017 12:02 - Written by

Looking at the numbers, it’s hard to tell that the U.S. is in the midst of a labor crisis. With unemployment at 4.4 percent (anything under 5 percent is considered full employment), and some jobs remaining open for longer than employers could wish, one alarming indicator is easy to ignore.

Recreational drug use is an increasing drag on our economy.

“An Ohio factory owner said Saturday that though she has blue-collar jobs available at her company, she struggles to fill positions because so many candidates fail drug tests,” reports CNN. “Regina Mitchell, a co-owner of Warren Fabricating & Machining in Hubbard, Ohio, told The New York Times this week that four out of 10 applicants otherwise qualified to be welders, machinists and crane operators will fail a routine drug test.”

Being drug-free is critical to Ms. Mitchell’s workplace, she explained.

“I need employees who are engaged in their work while here, of sound mind and doing the best possible job that they can, keeping their fellow co-workers safe at all times,” she said. “We have a 150-ton crane in our machine shop. And we’re moving 300,000 pounds of steel around in that building on a regular basis. So I cannot take the chance to have anyone impaired running that crane, or working 40 feet in the air.”

Two big factors are at work here. The first is the opioid abuse epidemic, which affects blue-collar areas most of all.

“Opioid use is on the rise across the country, but especially in Ohio. In 2014, the state had the second-largest number of opioid-related deaths in the United States and the fifth-highest rate of overdose,” CNN explains.

But there’s also the increasingly ambiguous legality of marijuana. It’s completely legal in some states, and quasi-legal in others (under a dubious “medical” category) and completely illegal in others, including Texas.

For Ms. Mitchell, that ambiguity is a problem.

“Ohio’s new law on medical marijuana, which went into effect in 2016 and allows those with a qualifying condition and a recommendation from a physician to buy the drug legally, was another hurdle for employers to overcome, she said,” CNN adds.

But even if her workers were using it legally or not, Ms. Mitchell can’t allow workers who are high anywhere near her heavy machinery.

“The difficult part about marijuana is, we don’t have an affordable test that tells me if they smoked it over the weekend or smoked it in the morning before they came to work. And I just can't take the chance of having an impaired worker running a crane carrying a 300,000-pound steel encasement,” she explained.

The opioid crisis is clearly a public policy matter; better guidelines for prescribing morphine-based painkillers will help, as will easier access to addiction treatment.

But marijuana is another matter. Our culture, which is now fuming about third-hand cigarette smoke (no, really) has decided that smoking marijuana is harmless. That’s wrong.

We need a real conversation about the substance and its effects. Meanwhile, employers will continue to deal with the labor crisis brought on by casual drug use.