Confusion as marijuana is legalized but big banks still test employees

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Marijuana has been legalized for recreational use in nine states, with several others likely soon to follow. But don’t be fooled by the headlines. While you can smoke it without fear of prosecution in states like California and Colorado, marijuana can still cost you a job offer at large public banks and smaller private firms.

What many people likely don’t know is that marijuana is still illegal on a federal level, even in states that have legalized it for recreational or even medical use. That means that any company can test for it during a pre-employment drug screening and use it as a reason to justify pulling an offer. In fact, firms that are considered federal contractors – every bank that operates nationally – are compelled to follow federal laws, according to labor attorneys. Of course, companies in those nine states can eliminate it from the list of substances that they test for, but in finance, few if any have.

One recruiter based in California who asked to remain anonymous said that he doesn’t know of a single client that tested for marijuana when it was illegal that has changed its policy following its decriminalization on a state level. But he also acknowledged that most of his clients don’t require candidates to undergo pre-employment drug screening.

Wells Fargo, the largest bank in California and one of the biggest in the country, said in a statement to eFinancialCareers that it does not drug test as a condition of hiring. However, it said it has “no tolerance” for illegal drugs and classifies marijuana as such.

“Our Drug Free Workplace policy has remained consistent over the past several years in the midst of many state changes regarding legalizing marijuana (medical or recreational) and the company continues to recognize it as an illegal substance under federal law so it is prohibited in the workplace,” Wells Fargo said in a statement.

Many other large banks do test, however. A current and former Goldman Sachs employee each said they were tested but were given a window of time to complete it. “It was super relaxed on my time,” the former banker said. The current employee completed the test immediately.

At smaller firms, anecdotal evidence points to more of a mixed bag. A former hedge fund employee who worked at three different firms said he was never tested as part of the pre-employment process. An accountant and an equity researcher who worked at several smaller firms across their careers said the same.

Interestingly, a consultant told us that he wasn’t tested by his employer but his group was forced to by a client they were working for – even though he’d been employed at the consulting firm for several years.

At the end of the day, always assume that you are going to be tested, no matter what the state, said the recruiter. And never ask about their drug testing policies in an interview. “You might as well sail a red flag,” he said.

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