Letter to Council President Hardin: Marijuana Reform

Columbus Chamber
The Columbus Chamber provides connections, resources and solutions that help small businesses and Fortune 500 enterprises grow Central Ohio's economy.

May 3, 2019

Dear Council President Hardin:

I am writing in response to your recent hearing seeking testimony regarding the local impact of marijuana penalties on the business community.

The Columbus Chamber (Chamber) just celebrated our 135thyear of helping now more than 1,900 businesses across the 11-county region grow and thrive.

The Chamber has long advocated for criminal justice reforms, and for the diversion of low-risk non-violent offenders towards treatment and rehabilitation in lieu of incarceration. As an organization focused on workforce development, we view this issue an important economic one. Reforms can and should result in decreased spending on our prison system and more effective outcomes that will reduce recidivism and the costs associated with it – through improved treatment, education, training, and workplace skills aimed to help our residents live their most productive and fulfilling lives.

While the Chamber supported many underlying principles of defeated State Issue 1 on the ballot in November of 2018, we endorsed a vote in opposition for two primary reasons: poor drafting and our belief that complex policy changes of this nature should be addressed through the legislative process and not enshrined in the Ohio Constitution. Since then, we have engaged in conversations with many of our partners in government at both the local and state level regarding possible reform items that the employer community could stand behind:

  1. Mirror the CQE program at the local level, and allow for broader application to misdemeanor offenses that are common barriers to employment, but that should not necessarily bar an individual from working (non-violent offenses). Ohio Revised Code Section 2953.25 allows certain formerly incarcerated individuals to file a petition with the Court of Common Pleas for a certificate of qualification for employment (CQE). These certificates are attractive for businesses because they provide immunity for the employer against negligent hiring claims (so long as the employer knew of the certificate at the time of the alleged negligence).Our Chamber is working to educate businesses about the program, and other community partners are doing the same for their constituencies. However, a CQE can only be granted in the limited circumstances where an individual is subject to a legal collateral sanctionin which adisqualificationfrom employmentor licensing occurs. We are interested in widening the scope of the CQE to help former members of the criminal justice system to overcome broader challenges/barriersto employment, and to incentivize the employer to consider hiring them despite their criminal background. This expansion of the CQE program will be increasingly important if the Ohio Legislature decides to scale down F4 and F5 offenses that would have previously qualified an individual to apply for a CQE to misdemeanor offenses.
  2. Create a similar program without amending state law, in which an individual may petition the court for a certificate/recommendation in coordination with an employment condition of their post-conviction probation plan, that will also provide immunity from liability for employers against negligence and negligent hiring (perhaps for a specified period of 6 months). The goal is that an ex-offender could take the certificate to a job interview to show proof that they are drug-free (THE primary concern we receive from businesses), have completed treatment or other programs that demonstrate their path towards rehabilitation, and that they are ready to be hired.
  3. A competitive grant program in which employers could apply to receive reimbursement dollars up to 50% percent of an ex-offender’s wagesby showing 1) they hired an ex-offender, 2) they have been employed for a certain time period and continue to be employed (to promote long-term, gainful employment). We can add guardrails – must be below a certain income threshold, caps, etc. This could also target in-demand jobs and tie directly to training received in the criminal justice system. Restoration Academy might be an existing vehicle to consider this.
  4. Direct funding and programming towards workforce development during incarceration, especially in in-demand careers (skilled trades and IT, for example). Studies show that gainful employment is one of the leading factors in reducing recidivism.
  5. Mirror the federal Work Opportunity Tax Credit at the state and/or local level, which will serve as a double-incentive for employers to hire these individuals upon release. A local incentive could be tied to specific in-demand jobs to directly address some of the skills-gap challenges employers are facing.

I would be happy to meet with you and discuss these ideas to be considered as part of your reform proposal.

There are a few additional items I would like to bring to your attention as you consider marijuana reform items:

As part of the H.B. 523 (medical marijuana) policymaking process, the Chamber was a primary advocate for ensuring strong employer protections were included in the final legislation that was signed into law. With any new laws or changes to existing laws, employers must maintain the ability to regulate their workplace and freely implement sound human resources policies without overly burdensome government intervention.

In the war for talent, employers are getting creative in how they attract and retain the best and brightest workforce.  Employers often lament the shortage of qualified workers that are able to pass a drug test, and some have begun to explore whether it makes business sense to take on the risk of opting out of drug testing their employees for marijuana. While this isn’t a feasible option for many industries such as transportation and trucking, warehousing and construction, it might be workable for others such as clerical and creative positions. A myriad of state regulations, such as eligibility through the Ohio Bureau of Workers Compensation’s (BWC) Drug Free Safety Program, make it difficult for employers to test this policy – an issue we are discussing with our partners in state government. Advancement of testing capabilities would also help employers to distinguish between on-the-job impairment versus marijuana use during personal time that does not negatively impact their job duties. However, federal law’s classification of marijuana as a Schedule 1 Drug prevents testing of this nature – an issue we are discussing with our partners in the federal government.

I mention the examples above to demonstrate the fact that while decriminalization of marijuana may reduce some barriers to employment, marijuana use by individuals and the current legal framework to regulate it still pose challenges for the employer community.

And finally, providing notice only two days before a hearing is simply not enough time for businesses to prepare testimony or the Chamber to solicit feedback from our members. However, because the notice stated specifically that the purpose of examining the local impact of marijuana penalties is to reduce barriers to employment and ensure all residents have access to good-paying jobs, the Chamber would like to offer to convene a group of businesses for you to hear directly from them on this issue.

We are already in many conversations with our partners in government on this issue, and stand ready to work with you as well.

Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,

Holly Gross
Vice President, Government Relations

Cc:        Council Member Favor