Employee Drug Screening Results Reach New Highs in Positive Test Numbers

Employee drug screening has been the norm in the business world for decades — so much so it has become a known part of the culture. One doesn't have to look far to find plenty of Hollywood comedies that involve, as some element of its plot, a workplace drug test scheduled at just the wrong time. Yet this pillar of the hiring process has seen significant changes in recent years — and so too have the results of those tests.

What's going on in the world of drug testing, and how are recent legal and cultural changes creating new challenges for employers?

Quest reports new records for high positivity rates

Quest Diagnostics, one of the largest providers of pre-employment drug test services in the United States, recently published findings about workplace testing results in recent years. In 2022, Quest said, positive drug tests hit their highest levels in two decades across the entire economy. Positive tests, including those for marijuana, accounted for about 7.7% of all tests in 2022. Marijuana-related positives rose by nearly half a percentage point in just one year. 

Quest also noted in their report that the post-accident positivity rate for marijuana had risen to 7.3%, compared to 6.7% for the prior year. However, these results were based on urine tests, which can detect cannabis metabolites for weeks or months following off-duty usage. Therefore, it is hard to say whether recent cultural changes have led to more unsafe workplaces. However, one thing is clear: drug use is rising, and employers may be concerned.

What's driving these increases?

The clear driver of these changes is increasing marijuana legalization nationwide. Both medical and recreational cannabis are now commonplace in many states. Social norms have changed, too, and prejudice against marijuana usage has begun to wane. At the same time, amphetamine positives have spiked, too —but this could easily relate to the dramatic increase in ADHD diagnoses and prescriptions that occurred during the global pandemic. Even the pandemic could be one contributing factor to the increase in substance abuse and subsequent positive tests.

Can employers still legally use pre-employment drug screening?

Yes — but sometimes with restrictions. No state has outright banned employment drug testing, and most agree that employers have the right to keep drugs out of the workplace. However, some states have made changes to eliminate decision-making based on a candidate's legal usage of marijuana. Therefore, reviewing local legislation that may impact how you order and evaluate drug tests is important.

For substances besides marijuana, the law has changed very little. Exceptions for valid prescriptions, such as ADHD medication, already exist. Medical resource officers in companies such as Quest help interpret testing results to validate legitimate substance use. For employers, therefore, avoiding the appearance of discrimination against marijuana users is likely to be the most important consideration in states where such laws exist.

Keeping Your Workplace Safe Matters

The nationwide trend of marijuana legalization seems likely to pick up even more steam in coming years, with some federal rumblings about changes on the horizon, too. Although employers may need to re-evaluate how they respond to positive cannabis tests, the importance of other types of drug tests has not diminished. Both background check and drug screening services can still provide important information.

Employers still have a right to create a drug-free workplace, and that includes keeping out harmful substances such as cocaine, opiates, and others. The future of employee drug screening is defined by larger compliance concerns than in decades past. However, with a smart approach and the right screening partners, you can still create a safe workplace. 

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Michael Klazema

About Michael Klazema The author

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

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