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If Amazon Lets Employees Smoke Weed Off-Hours, Why Can't Colorado?

Amazon employs around 10,500 people in Colorado.EXPAND
Amazon employs around 10,500 people in Colorado.
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Thousands of workers in Colorado can now use marijuana at home without having to worry about losing their jobs. They don't have state lawmakers to thank for it, though.

Amazon's June 1 announcement that employees in the United States would no longer be screened for marijuana during drug tests showed that the labor tides are turning across the country, even if they're moving slowly in Colorado, where the company has 10,500-plus employees. And not only will Amazon stop testing for pot — essentially treating cannabis like alcohol (sound familiar?) — but the company announced that it's supporting the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act to legalize the plant at the federal level.

"We hope that other employers will join us and that policymakers will act swiftly to pass this law," says Dave Clark, CEO of Amazon management group Worldwide Consumer.

Colorado lawmakers had a chance to ensure that all workers in the state, and not just those employed by Amazon, would be protected in a similar manner, but the effort was killed in 2020 — and it wasn't just killed, it was obliterated, voted down 0-10 on a first vote in a House committee. No similar legislation was introduced in 2021.

The 2020 bill proposed shielding employees from being fired for off-hour pot use under the same law that provides protection to alcohol and tobacco consumers. Employees who worked under federal guidelines, such as airline pilots or postal workers, wouldn't have been able to use the law as protection from being fired (that's similar to Amazon's new policy, which still tests employees for drugs after workplace accidents and bans marijuana use for positions regulated by the Department of Transportation).

Business and trade organizations loudly opposed treating off-hour marijuana use similar to the way alcohol is treated, and that group included the Colorado Chamber of Commerce, several construction organizations and Pinnacol Assurance, the largest handler of workers' compensation cases in the state. Yet Amazon, a company with a list of labor issues that includes forcing employees to pee in bottles, is now okay with it.

Colorado lawmakers and corporations had precedent to stand behind, citing a 2015 Colorado Supreme Court ruling that companies could fire employees for legal, off-duty marijuana use because it isn't clearly defined as lawful under state law. Other states have shown a little more cojones.

Nevada's state legislature passed a law last year that bans pre-employment marijuana tests; New York City also prohibits them. In 2017, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled in favor of a medical marijuana patient, saying that using medical marijuana — the only legal form of marijuana in Massachusetts at the time— off the job wasn't grounds for dismissal. Since legalizing recreational marijuana, Montana and New Jersey have also enacted protections for off-hours recreational marijuana use, and fifteen more states protect medical marijuana use off the clock.

Considering its status as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana in 2012, Colorado is lagging far behind.

Amazon is a major distributor, retailer and technology and logistics provider. If it's going to dominate the world, marijuana is likely to become wrapped in that web at some point. The marijuana industry is one of the few business sectors the company can't touch yet because of federal legalization, but Amazon clearly sees the demand. Colorado dispensaries alone sold nearly $2.2 billion worth of marijuana products in 2020. According to a market analysis from business consulting firm Grand View Research, the global legal marijuana market is expected to reach a compound annual growth rate of 26.7 percent from 2021 to 2028.

Colorado could become a major part of that. Geographically, the state is located close to the middle of the country. Zooming in further, Amazon's upcoming 3.7-million-square-foot shipping center in Colorado Springs is located between Pueblo and Denver, two of the state's largest marijuana growing hubs; the company also owns 98,000 square feet of office space in downtown Denver and is working toward a new 112,000-square-foot distribution center in Arvada that would hold packages before they're delivered to homes (though some community residents are opposing it).

Amazon is far from the beacon of hope for workers' rights — in fact, some groups argue it's more of plague — which is why having Amazon as an ally on the issue before our own elected officials is all the more embarrassing. But as more money turns to pot in Colorado, maybe worker and consumer rights will finally become a prime target for lawmakers. 

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