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New WA law blocks employers from rejecting job applicants based on cannabis use

Legislators, local leaders hope law leads to increase in employable workers

Marijuana joint, close up. Free public domain CC0 photo.
A new Washington state law prohibits employers from discriminating during the hiring process against a candidate based on their use of cannabis. (Photo courtesy of
By Jemma Alexander News Intern

A new Washington state law protects an individual’s ability to remain employable while legally consuming cannabis off the job.  

The recreational use of cannabis for adults 21 and older has been legal in Washington state since 2012. Put into effect Jan. 1, 2024, this law prohibits employers from discriminating during the hiring process against a candidate based on their use of cannabis.  

District 33 Sen. Karen Keiser, a sponsor of Senate Bill 5123, believes blocking candidates from jobs for consuming a legal product is unfair.  

“It makes no sense to limit our state’s workforce by deterring qualified job applicants, especially at a time when the number of unfilled positions is at historic highs,” she said in an email. 

Guy Occhiogrosso, president of the Bellingham Regional Chamber of Commerce, said he hasn’t received any local concerns regarding the new legislation.  

“In a workforce crisis, my hope is this would lead to an increase in employability and safe workplace environments,” Occhiogrosso said in an email. 

The law protects those who undergo drug tests during a hiring process that find non-psychoactive cannabis metabolites. Those metabolites refer to cannabis-derived chemicals left in the body after they have been metabolized and no longer affect someone’s cognitive abilities, said Josh Kaplan, an associate professor in Western Washington University’s behavioral neuroscience program. 

The non-intoxicating chemical of cannabis most frequently discussed is cannabidiol or CBD.  

“People use it for a variety of other reasons … from treating epilepsy to reducing anxiety,” said Kaplan, who runs Western’s Kaplan Lab, dedicated to studying the effects of cannabis on rodents.

While cannabis is federally listed as a class one drug, meaning it has “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse,” its health benefits have been well documented and studied.  

“We’re just starting to realize how to harness [the medical benefits] in a more effective and safe way, and to prohibit that in the workplace could be really limiting somebody’s ability to improve their health and well-being,” Kaplan said. 

The bill was initially read in the Senate Committee on Labor & Commerce on Jan. 9, 2023. After a few months of discussions, amendments and voting, Gov. Jay Inslee signed the bill on May 9, 2023.  

The law does not “affect the rights or obligation of an employer to maintain a drug and alcohol-free workplace,” according to the bill, SB 5123. Some contractors and grantees are required to maintain a drug-free work environment under federal law. 

Those seeking jobs that require a federal government background investigation or security clearance, jobs within Washington law enforcement agencies, fire departments, correction facilities, first responders and airline or aerospace industries will not receive protection under this law.  

The law also does not apply to “a safety sensitive position for which impairment while working presents a substantial risk of death,” SB 5123 stated. Such positions must be identified by employers prior to application.  

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