With Nevada's move to legalize, recreational marijuana closer than ever to Utah

Sunday , May 14, 2017 - 5:15 AM12 comments

MARK SHENEFELT, Standard-Examiner Staff

Unwinding in Nevada may become a lot more interesting for some Utahns.

Recreational marijuana dispensaries are popping up in the Silver State after voters there in 2016 approved the personal use of one ounce or less of marijuana by adults 21 and older.

From downtown Ogden, it’s only about a 150-mile, 2-hour drive to Wendover.

RELATED: Utah advocates expect medical marijuana ballot initiative in 2018

But Utahns who plan law-abiding cannabis excursions to Nevada should consider the potential consequences they might face when they return to the Beehive State, local employers and police say.

That’s because marijuana metabolites remain detectable in the blood for a few weeks, long after any intoxication has subsided. So in Utah, that could mean a DUI or a failed drug test on the job for someone who smoked a joint on a quick Wendover trip.

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A Utah employer group says companies intend to stand their ground against the potential impacts of legal recreational marijuana consumed by Utah workers in a growing roster of other Western states, now also including California, Colorado, Oregon and Washington.

“As long as companies have good policies in place, especially with safety sensitive positions,” a worker consuming marijuana in a state where it’s legal “doesn’t prevent them from being in violation,” said Summer Palmer, director of the Utah branch of the Society of Human Resource Managers.

“We can legally hold our ground here in Utah,” said Palmer, who also is Clearfield City’s administrative services director. “That’s what most employers are doing.”

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She urged employers to point out the realities to workers.

“Not everybody considers those ramifications when they’re in the act, or they may feel like they can skirt a random drug test. But if you’re out looking for a job, you might want to stay out of Colorado,” she said. 

And law enforcement agencies say there’s no immunity for drivers who use marijuana in border states and cross into Utah.

“With Wendover thinking about opening up some dispensaries, it may be legal there to gamble and do some drugs on a Friday night,” said Lt. Nathan Hutchinson, Weber County Sheriff’s Office spokesman. “But with Utah’s metabolite laws, if you have some in your system when you come back Sunday night, you could still be looking at a DUI charge.”

Weber County Sheriff Terry Thompson wrote the Utah Sheriffs’ Association’s policy stance against all marijuana legalization — drawing the line starting with medicinal marijuana.

“Utah is poised to create thousands of victims to this dangerous drug and further the destruction of the family unit as its poisonous effects claims lives through addiction and family dysfunction,” the sheriffs’ document says.

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Utah Highway Patrol Sgt. Todd Royce said UHP is watching for trends, but there’s nothing to see yet related to Nevada. There is some indication on Colorado’s impact, though.

A few counties that border Colorado — Uintah, Grand, and San Juan — have seen more arrests for personal use of marijuana, he said.

In 2015, Utah had a record 38 fatal crashes involving drivers whose blood tested positive for marijuana metabolites, according to the state Highway Safety Division. The 2016 total was down to 26, but that was still second most since at least 2006.

Frustration for Utah medical marijuana patients

A local champion of medical marijuana legalization, Christine Stenquist of Kaysville said some people desperate for help will consider heading to Nevada for the product.

“I definitely think we’re going to see an increase,” she said. “People will seriously consider going across the state line. I would see the draw of at least going into a legal dispensary to get a clean product. We’re now sandwiched between legal states.”

Utah’s zero-tolerance marijuana driving law troubles Stenquist, who said, “Just because you may have some metabolites, you are not driving stoned or impaired.”

The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, NORML, is lobbying for secondary laws in marijuana-legalizing states to catch up to the basic legalization statutes.

“On a Friday someone can drink until they are hospitalized, but as long as they show up Monday, they keep their job,” said Justin Strekal, NORML’s political director in Washington, D.C. “Heaven forbid that individual goes out and enjoys a joint, a meal and a movie. That would result in their termination.”

He said there’s no correlation between someone’s marijuana consumption on a vacation and a decline in employment performance two weeks later.

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“There are a lot of laws that need to be amended,” he said. “It’s an unsustainable policy.”

Strekal pointed to a Texas case as a harbinger of change.

High school teacher Maryam Roland vacationed in Colorado on Christmas break 2014-15 and consumed some legal edible marijuana there, according to Texas court records.

After allegations were made about teachers using drugs, Roland agreed to give the school district a hair sample, which tested positive for marijuana residue.

Roland resigned but appealed her case, resulting in a ruling that said she did not violate state or federal laws, school district policies or an educators’ code of ethics.

“Possession of a usable quantity of marijuana is a criminal offense in Texas, but so is gambling,” Administrative Law Judge William Newchurch wrote. He said he would not “find a teacher unworthy to instruct in Texas because she legally gambled in Nevada (or) unworthy to instruct because she legally consumed marijuana in Colorado.“

Workforce realities

In the workplace, economic forces might lead to a softening.

Palmer and Curtis Graves, staff attorney for the Mountain States Employers Council in Denver, pointed to Utah’s unemployment rate, 3.1 percent — one of the lowest in the nation.

“The reality is employers cannot be too persnickety about off-duty marijuana consumption,” Graves said. “Definitely, it they suddenly aren’t able to fill positions. In the end it becomes a business decision.”

For some industries that tend to find employees from populations of people who might frequently smoke marijuana, “the recruiting pool is going to get smaller and smaller and smaller,” Palmer said.

With unemployment low and recreational marijuana use increasing, she said, such employers may find themselves asking “Can we even get a candidate pool?”

Many local businesses are struggling to find qualified workers “when we’re already already weeding out a whole other group of people because of the presence of marijuana that they partook of legally somewhere else.”

You can reach reporter Mark Shenefelt at mshenefelt@standard.net or 801 625-4224. Follow him on Twitter at @mshenefelt and like him on Facebook at facebook.com/SEmarkshenefelt.

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