Tipping the scale

Amazon announces end of employee marijuana screening, pressuring lawmakers and businesses to reform cannabis policy


Amazon may have tipped the scale in favor of cannabis legalization this month, which could have green implications for businesses across the country, according to Michael Freimann, a Denver-based law partner at Greenspoon Marder.
Earlier in June, Amazon announced it would no longer be screening employees for marijuana use. Simultaneously, it declared that, moving forward, the Amazon “public policy team” would be actively supporting the Marijuana Opportunity and Expungement (MORE) Act — which could have big implications in the fight for legalization.

“We hope that other employers will join us, and that policymakers will act swiftly to pass this law,” wrote Dave Clark, CEO of Amazon’s Worldwide Consumer, in a message to the U.S. Operations employees.

The announcement is the latest blow to cannabis prohibition in the U.S. — and a heavy one, many experts believe. Amazon employs more than 1.2 million people in states across the U.S. It owns more than 40 subsidiary companies, such as Audible, GoodReads, Twitch, IMDb, Zappos and Whole Foods. It’s a massive, multinational technology and ecommerce company that’s had contracts working with the Central Intelligence Agency and the Department of Defense.
All of which is to say: Amazon is a powerful business in the U.S. And, when it makes an announcement of this nature, it’s more than just a message to its employees; it’s a policy change that could motivate other big U.S. businesses to follow suit, Freimann says.

Which, in turn, could push lawmakers into finally passing federal cannabis reform.

“As the second largest employer in the U.S, when Amazon makes decisions, it certainly could have a ripple-effect that extends to others throughout the country,” Freimann says. “I think it’s a game changer in this space.”

Dropping cannabis screening will affect all of Amazon’s employees, except those whose positions are regulated by the Department of Transportation. Clark’s message also indicates that Amazon will still be conducting impairment checks on the job, and testing for drugs and alcohol after any workplace accident.

But otherwise, he says cannabis use will be treated the same as alcohol use: as long as you aren’t intoxicated on the job, you’re free to use marijuana in your time off.

“In the past, like many employers, we’ve disqualified people from working at Amazon if they tested positive for marijuana use,” Clark wrote. “However, given where state laws are moving across the U.S., we’ve changed course.”

From a business perspective, Freimann says that makes a lot of sense. It will streamline the hiring process, and likely attract more U.S. candidates. It will also reduce the workload on Amazon’s human resources department, without the need to fire employees who fail cannabis screening tests.

Perhaps even more signifcant is Amazon’s promise to put the full power of its lobbying team behind the most robust piece of cannabis legislation currently on Capitol Hill.

“Because we know that this issue is bigger than Amazon, our public policy team will be actively supporting the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act of 2021 (MORE Act),” Clark wrote.

Originally sponsored by Vice President (then-senator) Kamala Harris, the MORE Act passed the House of Representatives in December 2020. It would legalize marijuana at the federal level, expunge criminal records of non-violent cannabis convictions and create social equity programs to invest in communities most heavily impacted by the drug war.

The MORE Act has had near-universal support from the marijuana industry and from several senators, including Elizabeth Warren and Corey Booker. And now, with Amazon’s public policy team backing the legislation, there’s more lobbying power behind it than ever before. That could go a long way in validating the economic potential of cannabis in the eyes of lawmakers, according to Freimann — especially if other, large employers follow Amazon’s lead.

“It has the potential to be impactful, not just at Amazon, but for other employers and their employees as well,” Freimann says.

While some cannabis-legal states, like Colorado and California, still allow businesses to take disciplinary actions against an employee who fails a drug test, others are starting to pass legislation to protect employees from exactly that. Both New York and New Jersey have recently passed laws protecting employees against cannabis screening; Nevada has declared that it won’t allow employers to take adverse action against employees who test positive for cannabis; and Philadelphia has implemented a similar law.

Now, with Amazon publicly voicing support for the end of cannabis prohibition, the business sector is weighing in. And the scale certainly does seem as though it’s in a position to tip.

“It’s hard to ignore this kind of statement. Whether it is the underlying catalyst to get lawmakers’ attention in this area remains to be seen, but it’s hard to completely ignore,” Freimann says. “As somebody who is as influential and large and successful as Amazon, when they speak, there are certainly people listening.”