MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We'd like to start the program today talking about an issue that shows how the country's attitudes about marijuana are changing and how they might not be. Recently, FBI director, James Comey, made a remark suggesting that the agency's currently - current hiring policy banning marijuana use in the three years prior to working there could maybe making it difficult to hire good programmers to tackle cybercrime. He said that some of the people he wants to hire want to smoke weed on their way to the interview. That was at a conference. He later backtracked and called it a joke, but he had a serious point and - which is a point that he made when he was questioned about this at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. Here's his comment.
(SOUNDBITE OF HEARING)
JAMES COMEY: I waxed philosophic and funny to say, look, one of our challenges that we face is getting a good workforce at the same time when young people's attitudes about marijuana and our state's attitudes about marijuana are leading more and more of them to try it. I am absolutely dead-set against using marijuana. I don't want young people to use marijuana. It's against the law. We have a three-year ban on marijuana. I did not say that I am going to change that ban.
MARTIN: Still, that remark caused us to wonder about workplaces other than the FBI, especially in states that permit the use of marijuana for medical purposes or just for recreation. We wondered if hiring policies are changing and we wondered whether Director Comey's comment is true. Are workplace policies affecting recruitment and hiring? So, we called Ricardo Baca. He's the marijuana editor for The Denver Post and founder of The Cannabist, the paper's marijuana culture website. And he's with us from member station KUVO, which is in Denver. Ricardo, thanks so much for joining us once again.
RICARDO BACA: Thank you.
MARTIN: Also joining us is Sarah Swick (ph). She covers the economy and politics for Michigan radio and she's with us from WDET in Detroit. Sarah, welcome to you as well.
SARAH SWICK: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: So Ricardo, let me start with you. There's a case getting a lot of attention about a man who was fired from Dish Network for testing positive for having traces of marijuana in his system during a random drug test. And I understand he had told them that he was using marijuana for medical purposes. Could you tell us a little bit more about it and why this case is getting so much attention?
BACA: It's true. His name is Brandon Coats and, you know, he was paralyzed as a teen in a car crash so he's been a medical marijuana patient for a while. When Dish did randomly test him, he did kind of tell them, hey, there's THC in my system that'll probably show up. It did, and they fired him. He did sue them but the court sided with the employer, regardless of Colorado's lawful activity statute, you know. And that statute covers - you know, you can't drink alcohol on the job, but you can go home and have a beer. You can have a cocktail on the weekend. The court said that that statute didn't cover this because marijuana is illegal federally. So, they just took the most broad definition of that statute and that's how they were able to fire him. But, The Colorado State Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case this year and it's looking like it will happen this summer with a ruling in the fall.
MARTIN: So Coloradans can legally buy, sell and use marijuana in most situations, but employers can, at the moment, still fire people for using it. Is that correct?
BACA: Yeah, it's true. In fact when we launched The Cannabist, our culture of pot website, in late December, you know, we ran a - excuse me - we ran a story with the headline, pot is legal in Colorado but you can still be fired for a positive drug test. And that was obviously one of the more popular stories of that month - that first month of traffic for us. But that's exactly the truth. The employers have the right to make that decision.
MARTIN: I just want to be - just be clear on this. There's no evidence that he was impaired while working, was there?
MARTIN: So - and just if you don't mind my asking - he has disclosed this - he was using marijuana because - for medicinal purposes because - why? His - I think to control muscle spasms, is that correct?
BACA: You know, I'm not sure. I know that I have read that he was paralyzed as a teen in a car crash and it was a thing, you know - circumstances that were - that were left over from that experience.
MARTIN: So Sarah, let's talk about Michigan. Michigan also allows marijuana use for medicinal purposes. But I understand that the circumstances are bit more strict. What's the situation there and how does marijuana influencing hiring there, at the moment?
SWICK: Well, voters passed a law allowing medical marijuana use pretty overwhelmingly in Michigan. I think was well over 60 percent approval, but since then medical marijuana has been legal but it's been kind of a patchwork across the state depending on where you are - kind of the - basically, in many ways, the whims of law enforcement have decided how this - how that law gets enforced and whether, you know, people are prosecuted for marijuana possession and use or not.
MARTIN: Well, tell me about that. What do you mean by that - that it's up to law enforcement?
SWICK: Well, just - it's gone to - there have been a number of cases where it's been taken to court and it's sort of been - it's been decided differently. In one suburban Detroit county, Oakland county, for example, has been pretty aggressive about going after medical marijuana use and also - especially distribution, the dispensaries - and they were taken to court over that and eventually the court agreed with them and said, you can sort of - you can agree or disallow, basically - or prosecute people for dispensaries. Other places - they operate openly. There is absolutely no problem with it. So it really depends very much on the local communities and that's been a big problem.
MARTIN: I wanted to ask about that. Do you see, Sarah - is this taking on the flavor of the kinds of debates that we have about abortion rights, for example, which is - even though this is a procedure which is legal in a certain set of circumstances, where there's community opposition you're not going to be able to exercise this freely. Is that kind of the way it's shaping up?
SWICK: That is an interesting comparison but in a way I think, yeah, there are some parallels there. And again, it just - it has gone, again, down to the level of the local communities and also, there was a case in West Michigan, speaking of sort of employment related marijuana, where a Walmart worker was fired after testing positive for marijuana. He was a legal, card-holder medical marijuana user, and that case has gone through the courts and they sided with the employer, eventually. So I - again, I think it's just - it's been described by more than one person as a mess, in Michigan.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the patchwork and the evolving conversations around marijuana use and employment. Our guests are Sarah Swick from Michigan radio and Ricardo Baca from The Denver Post. So Ricardo, what - how would you describe the conversations that employers are having around this? I mean, is this the kind of thing where - are there employers who have a different view about it - that they don't care what people are doing on their own time as long as they are not impaired at work? Or is there generally a divide between the employers and employees on this question, or employees who feel that they want to use marijuana - how is that conversation looking in Colorado?
BACA: You know, the conversation is certainly happening and it has been for a long time and going back pre-Amendment 64, pre - even medical marijuana legalization in Colorado, you still had employers who were fine with their employees using. In fact, I did a story last year for the front page of The Denver Post kind of addressing this growing cocktail culture inside corporations, you know - workplaces that were allowing their employees to drink, you know, have a beer at lunch or have a happy hour on every Friday or push the drink cart around on Thursday. And through the reporting of that piece, I came upon a small web design firm in LoDo, in downtown, that has about 40 employees and the CEO has a very open pot policy. He told me then, that, you know, among his programmers, if they want to smoke weed before coming in to the office or at their lunch hour they're absolutely welcome to do that because it just skyrockets their productivity. And I think that's some of what the FBI director Comey was talking about. If he wants to attract some of these programmers to be able to combat, you know, other countries and hackers - if he wants to really attract the cream of the crop then he really needs to be open to the possibility of maybe having employees who do smoke marijuana or use edibles.
MARTIN: Well, let me - let me, briefly though - how - and I was curious about on the smoking question. But we also know that in recent years - it's really going on sort of a couple of decades now - employers have become less and less tolerant of smoking on-site because other employees don't want to be exposed to secondary smoke. How are they reconciling those two, kind of, competing thoughts there? Are there designated areas for people who smoke? Are there designated happy hour areas where you can smoke and not be connected to other people who don't want to be exposed to it? How does that work?
BACA: You know, I think the employers don't want to get into that simply because Colorado law is pretty persnickety when it comes to where people ingest marijuana. Basically, the only legal place you can do it is inside your home or somebody else's home. It's illegal in all public places but I will tell you that one of the employer's councils here did a study in March - they released the results. It's called The Mountain States Employers Council, and what they found was that one in five Colorado employers said that they have implemented more stringent drug testing policies in the wake of Amendment 64, which passed in 2012 and allowed recreational marijuana. What the same study also found was that two percent of those polled had actually relaxed their drug policies saying, it's legal here, we're going to let this go. And them more than 70 percent said they hadn't made a change, but still, one in five - that's 20 percent of employers who responded to this particular poll - did say that they made their drug testing policies more stringent.
MARTIN: Interesting. Sarah, final thought from you - how is this conversation unfolding in Michigan? Is it a big issue? Is it a big political issue and how is - what kinds of conversations are employers having about it?
SWICK: Well, I don't think we're quite as far down the road as Colorado is. Medical marijuana is legal here, not marijuana use in general. But, I have not heard of open pot policies happening, which is not - in workplaces - which is not to say that they don't exist, but I think in general right now there's sort of less conversation about the employment aspect of it and more conversation about how you determine whether someone is basically too impaired to be operating a car, for example. So - and I know that that's something - that's a debate going on across the country - about how you measure that and, you know, what are - whether you can even really tell, given, sort of, the long duration of marijuana in a person's blood stream. So, I think in terms of employment policies and hiring policies Michigan is really just very much starting to have that conversation.
MARTIN: Sarah Swick is with Michigan radio. Ricardo Baca was also with us. He's editor at The Cannabist from the Denver Post. Thank you both so much for joining us.
BACA: Thank you.
SWICK: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.