By Margot Roosevelt

When Rye Electric was founded in Orange County five years ago, it screened all prospective workers for drugs. If a test showed traces of cannabis, the applicant was nixed.

But the fast-growing construction company, which has a millennial-heavy workforce, has since adapted to the times. “We still do the tests,” Chief Executive Chris Golden said, “but we choose to look the other way on marijuana.”

Some 20 of the company’s 150 workers were hired despite flunking a pre-employment screening for cannabis. “We let them know they can’t do it on the job and we trust them not to,” Golden said. “What are we going to say — you can’t do something that’s legal?”

Marijuana use remains illegal under federal law. But California was the first state to defy federal prohibition, legalizing medical cannabis in 1996. A 2016 ballot initiative opened the way to recreational pot.

With a growing economy and a low unemployment rate of 4.2%, many California companies face a shortage of qualified workers. Legal marijuana is making hiring even harder for those who take a strict stance on screening for drugs. So, increasingly, they’re not testing — or ignoring some of the results.

“You watch what’s going on in society. You look at recruiting, and you say, ‘We’ve got to adjust,’” said Marc Cannon, a spokesman for AutoNation, the largest U.S. car retailer. The company, with 26,000 employees nationwide and 55 California outlets, stopped screening for cannabis three years ago.

“A lot of great candidates were failing the test,” Cannon added. “There are people who drink and are great workers, but they don’t do it on the job. Marijuana is just like alcohol.”

New Jersey-based Quest Diagnostics, compiling data on 10 million tests a year, reports an increase in workers testing positive for pot, especially in states where recreational use is legal.

In 2010, 1.6% of Quest’s urinalysis tests in California showed traces of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, marijuana’s main active compound. By last year, the figure had risen to 2.5%. Some industries, including retail and warehousing, see higher rates.

“Our data suggests recreational use of marijuana is spilling into the workforce,” said Barry Sample, senior director for science and technology.

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