How Relevant is Workplace Drug Testing in 2023 and Beyond?

For decades, the pre-employment drug test has been one of the most consistent parts of the hiring process. Many jobs demand that applicants submit to a drug test before they will provide a concrete job offer. Even places such as grocery stores and retail chains, where safety hazards on the job are relatively minor compared to transportation and manufacturing, demand these drug tests.

The goal has always ostensibly been to create a safer workplace where employees are less likely to be intoxicated on the job. However, since the dawn of the "war on drugs" during the Nixon Presidency, drug testing has also been seen as a means of social pressure against substance use and a deliberate barrier to keep drug users out of the workplace. Today, the social, political, and economic landscapes are vastly different from those of the 1970s. The result has been a sudden surge in one big question: why use employment drug screening in the first place?

The question has taken on pressing importance over the last decade because of a major change: attitudes towards cannabis have drastically changed. The majority of the United States now has some form of recreational or medical cannabis; the federal government plans to study re-scheduling cannabis and to change its legal status; and even very conservative states such as Kentucky have begun to open doors for cannabis use.

Testing for marijuana — and, more importantly, denying jobs based on a positive result for THC — is in a steep decline because of this change. That does not mean denials for cannabis don't continue. From Kentucky to many other states, governments have not protected cannabis users from adverse action taken by employers for positive drug tests. Others, such as New York, have deliberately barred employers from testing for cannabis.

The reality is that a positive THC result offers very little useful or concrete information. THC positives can reflect a single usage of cannabis from weeks ago. There is no test that can indicate someone is actively impaired from this or any other non-alcohol drug. Moreover, there is little evidence to indicate that a positive THC test has any bearing on an individual's ability to work safely. Because of these changes, many businesses have simply ignored THC positives. 

So, does that mean that workplace drug screening is irrelevant today? Hardly — and not just because regulated industries such as transit must screen employees by law. Drug test panels still provide information on other "hard" drugs, including cocaine, methamphetamine, and opiates. Although cannabis has broadly accepted medical uses and many have even embraced recreational use, the same is not true for other substances.

For employers, drug screening requires a careful balancing act between fairness and openness and individual business priorities. A habitual opiate user can pose much more of a risk to a business than a regular cannabis user. Ultimately, companies must carefully evaluate their personnel priorities and choose a path forward that balances ongoing social change with the need for safe, reliable, and trustworthy workers.

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Michael Klazema

About Michael Klazema The author

Michael Klazema is the lead author and editor for Dallas-based with a focus on human resource and employment screening developments

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