RESORT TOWNS HIGH IN FAILED MARIJUANA TESTS
Author: Joanne Kelley
Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO)
Sat, 10 Jun 2006
Seven Colorado Areas Exceed U.S. Average in Positive Workplace Exams
ASPEN - This party town is a target in the government's drug war, a decades-old fight that has long found allies in businesses that screen job candidates for dope use.
Now there's fresh ammunition: data pinpointing exactly which parts of the U.S. have the highest proportion of people flunking workplace marijuana tests.
Some of Colorado's mountain resorts - Aspen among them - rank near the top among the seven areas in the state that exceed the national average for positive marijuana testing.
A Surprise For Aspenites?
"Not really," said Karen Vallecillo, human resources director for the swank St. Regis Hotel at the base of Aspen Mountain. "The hospitality industry tends to attract people that would more likely be occasional drug users."
Still, Vallecillo reported a lower frequency of positive drug tests at the Aspen property than at hotels in other cities where she has worked.
The drug of choice among those who fail tests in Aspen?
"Marijuana," she said, noting methamphetamine use among job candidates showed up more often in a previous hiring post in another state.
A few blocks away in the former mining town turned high-end resort, the upscale Hotel Jerome said no potential applicant has failed a drug test since it adopted a screening policy.
"Everybody we've extended offers to has passed," Jerome spokeswoman Jennifer Barnhart said. "We've been very fortunate."
Barnhart said the Jerome started testing all potential workers after the lodging association recommended that all local hotels institute a uniform policy.
Aspen Has Permissive Reputation
Conformity in drug testing tends to be common depending on the industry because no employer wants to become the magnet for drug abusers, said Mark de Bernardo, executive director of the Institute for a Drug-Free Workplace in suburban Washington.
"Employers have the single most effective weapon in the war on drugs: That's the paycheck," he said.
But despite the drug-free workplace mantras, Aspen has developed a relatively permissive reputation among marijuana smokers.
Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis has made no secret of his opposition to the nation's drug war, arguing that marijuana use should be legalized.
Even Aspen Police Chief Loren Ryerson, who stirred controversy for not informing the sheriff's office before embarking on a dramatic drug raid in December, struck a conciliatory tone last week.
"If people feel they must smoke marijuana, don't invite us to the party by doing it in public or by creating a disorderly circumstance," he said, noting his force doesn't encounter many problems with people "intoxicated only by marijuana."
An illness kept Braudis from delivering opening remarks at last week's annual confab of criminal defense lawyers enticed to Aspen by one of marijuana smoking's biggest boosters - NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
NORML describes itself as the principal lobbying group for "the tens of millions of Americans who smoke marijuana responsibly." It chose Aspen partly to recognize a push for a statewide ballot initiative that would make it legal to possess small amounts of pot.
Some of NORML's biggest supporters live in town.
None of those in attendance was surprised by Aspen's appearance on a list of places with a high proportion of positive marijuana tests.
"Anytime you have an affluent, well-educated group of people, you're going to have recreational drug use," said Gerald Goldstein, an attorney who splits his time between Aspen and San Antonio. "But I don't think anyone anywhere has ever died of a marijuana overdose."
Goldstein, a friend and attorney of the late Hunter Thompson, briefed the small NORML gathering on key marijuana cases when he wasn't turning his talk into an ode to the flamboyant journalist who lived much of his life in nearby Woody Creek.
The NORML event culminated with a three-hour "high tea" party at Owl Farm hosted by Anita Thompson, widow of Hunter Thompson, himself an advocate of decriminalizing drugs.
The party atmosphere tends to rub off on everyone who comes to Aspen, said Kristopher Hammond, an attorney from Steamboat Springs who took part in the NORML legal gathering. "Even people who are working as dishwashers are really not here for the job."
Drug Use In State Eyed
The data implicating Colorado were released last month by the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy. But even an official from the agency admits the results could be skewed by the much smaller samplings in the mountains.
In Crested Butte, for instance, only six people flunked a drug test, but the area still landed at the top of the heap for positive pot tests because just 153 tests were included in the report.
"Now that we've got this tool we can begin to chart ( patterns ) over time," said David Murray, policy analyst in the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Of 2,635 workplace drug tests, there were 90 positive tests, about 3.5 percent, according the federal drug control office.
The national workplace testing positive average for marijuana is 2.8 percent. Seven areas in Colorado exceeded the national average.
Murray called Colorado "a drug-using population" but said the federal government "can actually do very little" about it. He said his organization tells local officials: "The cavalry is coming. You're the cavalry."
At the same time, Murray said, a push to legalize marijuana in Colorado caught the attention of his office and prompted White House drug czar John Walters to pay a visit to the state recently.
"We were thrilled," said Mason Tvert, campaign director for a group called Safer Alternative for Enjoyable Recreation, or SAFER for short. "He is simply drawing attention to the fact that we have completely irrational laws in place."
SAFER, formed in part to tout marijuana as far less harmful than alcohol, was behind the Denver vote to legalize possession and use of less than 1 ounce of marijuana. Now it wants to get enough signatures to put the same issue to a statewide vote.
"In terms of public health, it would be better to have a lower rate of alcohol use and higher rate of marijuana use," said NORML founder Keith Stroup, who said he started smoking pot in law school in 1965 and has done so ever since.
"There's never been a time when I could have passed a drug test," Stroup said. "I've never been a fan of drug testing unless you have a job that involves public safety. We have to do a better job of convincing employers they're going to lose a lot of very valuable people."
Drug-Testing Approach Changes
In Aspen, a town that needs to hire so many new seasonal workers each year, the approach to drug testing at one major employer has shifted.
Aspen Skiing Co., which owns the four ski resorts in the immediate area, adopted pre-employment drug testing for all its employees about 12 years ago."We weren't one of the early adopters, but as it became an industry standard, we realized it was the appropriate and prudent thing to do from a liability perspective," said Jim Laing, Aspen Skiing's vice president of human resources.
Several years later, Laing said the company looked into changing its drug-testing policy and concluded that "random testing or sampling is essentially as effective ( a deterrent ) as testing everybody."
"Frankly, it's an intelligence test," Laing said. "We tell people we're going to do it and if somebody wants to gamble. . . . "
Supporters of workplace testing say the screening provides a strong deterrent.
"It works," said de Bernardo of the Institute for a Drug-Free Workplace, which argues that drug use boosts health care costs, on-the-job accidents and other work-related problems. "Companies that do drug testing almost never retreat from it."
But some say drug testing in the Aspen area has been too limited.
"I wish more testing were being done, especially if there's a reason to believe substance abuse is going on at work," said Brad Osborn, director of The Right Door, a nonprofit that helps people find treatment for their drug and alcohol problems.
At the same time, he said, Aspen "doesn't have enough employees to shun everyone who has a substance abuse problem. It's worth it to try to help them. If we're going to have a resort community that is party driven, we should support ( working on solutions )."
But marijuana proponents say many of the arguments on behalf of drug testing miss the point.
"To just have a blanket measure that prevents people from getting jobs based on their use of marijuana is really damaging to the economy," said SAFER's Tvert. "We are taking people who are fully qualified, and we are immediately excluding them based solely on the choices they make off the job."