Here’s why Amazon relaxed its marijuana standards, according to industry experts and lawyers

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When Leafly and Headset co-founder Cy Scott heard the news about Amazon relaxing its marijuana testing standards for job applicants while backing federal legalization efforts, two thoughts immediately came to mind:

Amazon needs people. Amazon wants market share.

“I think fundamentally it’s about hiring,” said the founder of two cannabis-centric companies. “It’s really hard for them to hire given that a majority of Americans live in markets where cannabis is legal — and a significant majority when you add in medical cannabis. Frankly, it’s hard for them to hire around that.”

He added: “And it is also hard to ignore a potential emerging market.”

Last week, Amazon announced it is backing federal legislation that would legalize marijuana and that the company will stop screening applicants for use of the drug in certain job classifications. As a rationale for the sudden change of policy about pot use, Dave Clark, CEO Worldwide Consumer, noted that the country is changing its attitude about pot.

“However, given where state laws are moving across the U.S., we’ve changed course,” Clark wrote in a blog post announcing the switch. “We will no longer include marijuana in our comprehensive drug screening program for any positions not regulated by the Department of Transportation…”

But cannabis industry experts along with attorneys who handle workplace issues believe there is something deeper afoot.

Hiring under zero-tolerance policies was difficult even prior to marijuana legalization. More than a decade ago when it faced a dearth of recruits, the FBI famously rescinded its policy which barred applicants who had once smoked pot. 

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Facing similarly shrinking recruitment pools, many local police departments also had quietly been reversing similar policies for years.  Then came the first wave of medical marijuana exemptions, followed by the first recreational pot legalization initiatives in 2012 in Washington and Colorado.

Currently, recreational marijuana is legal for adults in 16 states and the District of Columbia. Medical marijuana is legal in an additional 20 more.

Today, all major American professional sports leagues have relaxed cannabis testing or plan to do so, led by the NHL which now only busts players with “dangerously” high levels of THC, the drug’s psychoactive compound. And recently four states — New York, New Jersey, Montana, and Nevada — approved worker protections to make it tougher for employers to fire someone for off-duty recreational pot use. 

Amazon has fulfillment centers in each of those worker-protected states. And the compny has plans to hire tens of thousands of additional employees across the country. 

Amazon debuted a new delivery program in June 2018 in Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Seattle attorney Michael Subit marvels at how the legal landscape has changed. Ten years ago today, he lost the state’s first Supreme Court case over worker protections and medical marijuana use in Roe v. Teletech. In court, he argued that the passage of the medical marijuana law meant a “duty to accommodate” the new law when a worker was prescribed marijuana.

“That argument lost in the Washington Supreme Court,” he recalled. “I think maybe today we get a different result.”

Indeed, Subit’s argument now is the underpinning for partial worker protections in some states, such as Massachusetts when it comes to medical marijuana. Washington still has no such worker protections.

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“Well, it was nice to have validation in Massachusetts,” he said with a laugh.

But from a long-term planning standpoint, those legal changes in both recreational and medical marijuana use and worker protections began to erode Amazon’s anti-pot stance. Employer attorney Jared Van Kirk, who has helped craft employer drug-testing policies in Washington state, said Amazon’s switch makes sense. And he would not be surprised to see other multi-state companies follow suit.

The company’s pro-pot change not only expanded the hiring pool, it also made internal management much more universal, he added. “I wasn’t surprised at all that any employer would be open to those changes, especially a multi-state employer.” 

Scott, who co-founded and then sold Leafly, which focused on consumer education, and then helped start Headset, which provides cannabis industry analytics, said there also likely is another long-term goal here.

Amazon is an online retailer with a vast delivery network, he said. Does this competitive, voracious multinational want to be ready if the federal government legalizes pot and opens the door to Joints-by-Amazon? Should the existing cannabis industry be concerned? Might shoppers see marijuana in Whole Foods and Amazon Fresh?

By way of comparison, Scott asked and answered this question: What did Costco do when it wanted to legally sell booze? 

“They dumped millions of dollars to get the laws changed,” he said. “It was very lucrative for them.”

Amazon might see pot in the same way, he added. “Certainly there [could be] an opportunity for them in the future to sell cannabis. Any retailer that has to compete with Amazon, I think it’s challenging.” 

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