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Weeded Out: the truth behind internship and job drug testing

Millions of Americans – around 25 million, according to government surveys – have smoked marijuana in the last year. And many of these Americans are current college students, some of who are gearing up for summer internships or full-time jobs after graduation.

Northwestern is no exception. As marijuana becomes more socially acceptable and has been legalized in Washington state, D.C., and Colorado, more students have used the common recreational drug.

After many students finally get that offer sheet that they had been angling for, they’re hit with what for some is a terrifying condition: passing a drug test. Not all employers require passing a drug test, but for those that do, the process can be intimidating.

“We are in uncharted territories,” Executive Director of Career Services Mark Presnell said. “The more acceptance that you get for marijuana, the less likely an employer is going to test. You think of alcohol. Alcohol is widely accepted; nobody tests for alcohol.”

One Medill junior, Adam*, is working at a newspaper this summer and will have to pass a urinalysis. Though he does occasionally smoke marijuana, he understands why businesses might want to make sure their employees are clean.

“In states where it’s legal, I’m not sure it should matter if you’re at home smoking on your off-time,” Adam said. “That said, if you were a medical professional or handling government secrets or anything that’s serious in nature, I definitely think you should be tested.”

Other students, like Chris*, who is going into consulting after graduating this year, agree that people in specific fields should be tested.

“I think there are some jobs and positions where I would want everyone in that position to be drug free,” Chris said. “For instance, medicine makes sense to me, although there is an interesting abuse of prescriptive medication in that area.”

Chris said that drug testing is more prevalent in investment banking, which “is known for its hard partying and tough lifestyle.” Though he has not been drug tested for his consulting job, it was something he was concerned about because he occasionally uses marijuana.

John*, on the other hand, is going into investment banking and has not been drug tested for his future job or his previous two finance internships.

“I haven’t gotten any word that I’ve had to take one, but it’s always on my mind,” he said.

Despite the legalization and social acceptance nationwide, companies still test for marijuana. Adam, Chris and John all agreed that it is still fair for businesses to test for it.

“I think it’s fair just because it’s a private institution that can test for whatever it wants, even if the substances are legal,” John said.

Though many who go into consulting or investment banking may be concerned about drug testing, most companies give enough notice for new hires to plan accordingly. Other fields, however, undergo a more intense period of inspection.

“We have a subsection of our population here that wants to work in organizations that require security clearances,” Presnell said. They have a much higher level of scrutiny in terms of drug issues. You think of places like the FBI, CIA and the State Department. Many of these places require a security clearance to work there.”

For those agencies, a urinalysis isn’t enough – applicants must pass a polygraph test, where they are questioned about both drugs and their personal history.

As for the majority of Northwestern students who enter the professional world, drug tests are a mere speed bump on the way to their respective careers, according to Presnell.

“I don’t know of any students who have ever lost out on an internship or job because of a positive drug test,” he said.

Presnell said that if someone fails a drug test, companies will sometimes give them a second chance to pass – though he does not personally recommend counting on that strategy.

“I’m not equating the two, but if I have a piercing on my face, is that probably not an acceptable thing for an employer to necessarily screen on in an interview?” Presnell said. “But we know they do… There are all these kinds of things that are perfectly legal for an employer to make a hiring decision on, that we have to talk through the process with the students.”


*All Northwestern students’ names have been changed

About Daniel Hersh

Daniel Hersh is a sophomore from Dallas, Texas enrolled in the Medill School of Journalism. He enjoys both real and fantasy sports, and got his private pilots license when he turned 18.

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