In Response to Hiring Crunch, University Loosens Drug Testing Requirements

“If you look at the evidence and the literature, you can’t find one study that says this is a policy that prevents—what? Medical errors?”

By Hugo Smith

The Biological Sciences Division (BSD) will no longer test most employees for marijuana.

Pre-employment drug testing will continue to be required for University of Chicago Police Department officers and some employees in the BSD, transportation, and Campus and Student Life. Per legal requirements for officers, all employees at the UCPD will continue to be screened for marijuana on employment.

Associate Director for Public Affairs Gerald McSwiggan told The Maroon that “the University began removing cannabis from pre-employment drug screening for many staff employees in late autumn quarter 2021, with the process being completed during spring quarter 2022.”

John Schneider, director of the University’s Chicago Center for HIV Elimination and a professor of medicine and epidemiology in the BSD, led a campaign that pushed for changing the BSD’s drug testing policies. Schneider told The Maroon that the prohibition of marijuana usage limited researchers’ ability to conduct their research in communities with high rates of drug use.

“We do research with substance users and substance-using communities, and we wanted to hire people who were from the community,” Schneider told The Maroon. “We were unable to because of this policy.”

Schneider described community engagement as crucial to conducting this kind of research and emphasized that this requires hiring community members, who have frequently been disqualified because of the University’s drug testing policies. “To engage the community, you can’t have a bunch of—not to knock U of C students, but you can’t have U of C students engaging the community. You need Hyde Park, and outside Hyde Park, people on the South Side,” he told The Maroon.

On February 12, Schneider and nine other cosigners—all doctors and professors in the BSD—sent a letter to the University’s administration advocating for these changes. In the following months, the issue escalated beyond the BSD, prompting these university-wide policy changes.

Mai Pho, another researcher in the BSD who conducts research on heroin addiction in southern Illinois, ran into similar hiring problems. “We work with really marginalized people, we work in the community, not in the hospital,” Pho told The Maroon. “We want to employ peers in the field who can really develop relationships with our study participants and engage them in a way that people feel they can really trust them.” She added that this was made harder when many top candidates were disqualified by the BSD’s drug testing requirement.

The tests were inconvenient for many candidates, as they needed to be conducted at UChicago Medicine in Hyde Park. Pho told The Maroon that one hire needed to travel more than five hours from Murphysboro, IL, to take the test. The University does not accept tests from other laboratories.

The legality of marijuana in Illinois also frustrated these researchers, and a University spokesperson partially credited it with the changes, along with “the need to continue recruiting qualified prospective employees.”

Schneider questioned the efficacy of any kind of one-time drug screening as a condition of employment. “If you look at the evidence and the literature, you can’t find one study that says this is a policy that prevents—what? Medical errors?” he told The Maroon. He suggested that a policy truly aiming to reduce drug use would implement regular testing.

Both Schneider and Pho celebrated the policy change as a success and said that it would make it easier for them to conduct their research. “This really has made a difference, at least for my hires,” Pho told The Maroon. She noted that many other universities maintained more restrictive drug testing policies and said she had urged her colleagues at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to push for similar changes.

“I’m really tired of the University always saying, ‘well, Harvard isn’t changing their policies’ or Columbia and all these other places,” Schneider told The Maroon. “U of C, finally, we did something first.” He said he was confident that these changes would allow him to more effectively conduct his research in communities struggling with drug abuse.