Back in September, I moderated a panel of shipyard executives as part of WorkBoat’s Professional Series Regional Summit in Point Clear, Ala. I’ve moderated a number of these panels over the years, looking for ways to attract young people to the boatbuilding industry, training them and keeping them.

But it was the first time I asked this particular question: “If the state in which your shipyard is located were to adopt legislation similar to the states of Washington and Colorado, whereby the recreational use of marijuana becomes legal, would this help, hurt, or have no effect on the number of workers you would be able to hire? Would it create more problems for you?”

All panel members said, emphatically, that it would change nothing. It’s zero tolerance now, and it would remain zero tolerance.

Now, why would I ask such a question? Several years ago at a Gulf States Shipbuilders Consortium meeting in Mississippi a shipyard official told me that, by far, failure to pass a drug test because of the presence of marijuana in the subject’s system was the number one reason new recruits washed out of his shipyard’s training program.

Well, the cultural climate is changing when it comes to marijuana in the U.S. It’s currently legal in the states of Washington and Colorado (if you ignore the federal government, which says it’s still illegal). Voters in seven states, 17 cities and counties, and one U.S. territory will have marijuana initiatives on the ballot when voters go to the polls in November.

I decided to talk to the shipyards in the state of Washington to see what, if anything, has changed for them. As with shipyards across the country, workers are drug tested when they apply for a job and, if they are hired, randomly tested after that. This includes those in management positions.

Here is the hypothetical question I posed: If a shipyard worker has a few beers on a Sunday while watching the Seahawks game, doesn’t drink during the next four days, and is drug tested on Thursday, he or she should have no problem passing the test. However, if he or she smoked a joint on Sunday along with the beers while watching the Seattle game, did not use marijuana since then, but was tested on Thursday, he or she would test positive because marijuana stays in a person’s system longer that alcohol does. Both drugs are legal to use, according to the state of Washington.

Most yards didn’t return my call. The shipyard that would talk to me did not want to be identified, either by the name of the person I was interviewing or even the name of the shipyard. (Vigor Industrial’s spokesperson said the company’s Human Resources department was not at liberty to discuss the subject.)

Interestingly enough, the one shipyard that did talk to me said her yard still has zero tolerance for a worker having marijuana in his or her system. “And you better watch out you don’t drink too many of those beers too late into Sunday night because you could be tested the next day.”

I asked if there had been any pushback, current or potential workers complaining that if the state said it was legal and he or she didn’t ingest it on a work day, why should he or she be punished for it. “We haven’t experienced anything like that,” she said.

But I think it’s coming, not tomorrow, but maybe in five years. As it becomes more accepted as a legal recreational drug across the U.S., I think changes will come. Someone will find a way to measure the amount of marijuana in one’s system and be able to conclude that it was ingested on the worker’s day off.

I’m not a chemist. I don’t know how it can be accomplished. I’m just guessing that it will be accomplished, provided that the worker in question is not a danger to himself or herself or anyone else.  

Ken Hocke has been the senior editor of WorkBoat since 1999. He was the associate editor of WorkBoat from 1997 to 1999. Prior to that, he was the editor of the Daily Shipping Guide, a transportation daily in New Orleans. He has written for other publications including The Times-Picayune. He graduated from Louisiana State University with an arts and sciences degree, with a concentration in English, in 1978.