Alaska officials reform drug-testing policy to permit legal marijuana use by city workers

Anchorage will allow most employees to use marijuana off the clock, but not work for the city within eight hours of using marijuana


Anchorage Fire Department/Facebook

By Emily Goodykoontz
Anchorage Daily News

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — The Anchorage Assembly on Tuesday reformed the municipality’s drug testing policy for city workers, allowing most employees to use marijuana in accordance with state laws.

Assembly members approved the measure in a 9-3 vote. The policy changes will take effect in 30 days.

The city will soon handle marijuana consumption in a manner similar to alcohol — most employees will be able to use marijuana off the clock. The measure stipulates that an employee can’t do work for the city within eight hours of using marijuana.

The policy shifts the focus of drug testing onto workplace impairment rather than private use, and aims to take a more supportive approach with city staff, said Assembly Chair Christopher Constant, who proposed the reform.

[EARLIER: Alaska officials consider changes in drug testing policy for city employees, including firefighters]

The legislation is “moving us into the direction where we respect people’s privacy,” said Assembly member George Martinez, who cosponsored the policy change with Constant. The changes honor the will of Alaska voters who approved legalization of marijuana almost 10 years ago, Martinez said.

For city employees who work under federal or state regulations — police officers, public transportation workers and those with a commercial driver’s license — marijuana use is largely still banned.

Testing for marijuana will be done only with saliva tests, according to the ordinance. It institutes a threshold of 25 nanograms per milliliter or more to determine whether a staff member is under the influence on the job.

However, a city employee who fails a drug screening will no longer face automatic firing, as city code has long dictated. Instead, city management could choose to require the employee to go through a “progressive discipline” process. That may include substance misuse education, an assessment and a referral to treatment.

“We have had a policy, written in the 1980s, for the last 40 years — last updated in 1998. The world has changed since then,” Constant said. “We cannot afford to terminate an employee if they’re a good-quality employee, if their supervisor agrees that they’ve done a good job and they’ve had a misstep.”

The measure directs the Human Resources Department to publish “a comprehensive substance misuse policy which prioritizes education and treatment over separation for employees testing positive for alcohol or prohibited drugs.”

The legislation “changes the posture of the municipality from an employer who fires immediately an individual who might show a positive on a substance misuse test, and provides them a path to get back in the good graces of their employer,” Constant said.

Municipal Manager Kent Kohlhase on Tuesday evening called for the Assembly to postpone its vote to give time for the Human Resources Department to review revisions to the proposal made by the sponsors since last week, but a vote on postponement failed 5-7.

“Philosophically, the administration does not support lowering the standards, especially with respect to ... critical public safety functions like AFD (Anchorage Fire Department),” Kohlhase said.

Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration would prefer that the Assembly only change the standard for marijuana testing, rather than making broad revisions to policies, he said.

Assembly members Karen Bronga, Scott Myers and Randy Sulte voted against the measure.

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