Positive Drug Tests for US Workers Reportedly Hit 20-Year High

    Last year, the percentage of employees who tested positive for drugs reached its highest rate since 2001, according to Quest Diagnostics, one of the largest drug-testing labs in the United States. Increasing percentages of employees, it reported, tested positive for marijuana, methamphetamine and cocaine.

    Advocates have long condemned the practice of workplace drug testing—particularly as a pre-employment requirement for job candidates—as an invasive and discriminatory extension of the drug war.

    And in general, use of drug testing at US workplaces has fallen considerably in the past 25 years. This has been driven in part by changing attitudes to marijuana as states enacted legalization and other reforms. More recently, pandemic-related labor shortages may have encouraged companies not to exclude employees on the basis of drug use.

    As noted in the Wall Street Journal, the percentage of specimens tested for THC decreased 6.7 percent in 2021 from 2020 across the country, while the number fell more than 10 percent in states where recreational marijuana is now legal. Amazon, for example, announced last year that it would no longer test most employees for cannabis.

    The rate of positives has increased more than 30 percent since an all-time low in 2012. But the vast majority of tests still come back negative.

    Drug testing does, however, remain relatively ubiquitous in safety-sensitive industries, like transportation and warehousing, which can often fall under federal regulations. 

    According to Quest, the overall rate of positives has increased more than 30 percent since an all-time low in 2010 to 2012. But the vast majority of tests still come back negative. The company’s yearly drug testing index, which looked at close to 9 million urine samples from January to December 2021, found that the positive rate increased from 4.4 percent in 2020 to 4.6 percent in 2021.

    For cannabis in particular, Quest found that the positivity rate among the general US workforce went up slightly—from 3.6 percent in 2020 to 3.9 percent in 2021. The positivity rate for cocaine rose by 46.6 percent—a high-sounding figure that should be read in the context of only 0.85 percent of tests being positive for cocaine in 2021. Methamphetamine was up 26.4 percent, with 0.67 percent of tests positive last year. While most use of these and other drugs is non-problematic, stimulant-involved deaths—mostly in combination with other drugs—have been rising in recent years.

    Rates of positives for other drugs fell. Opponents of workplace drug testing contend that drug use is not a relevant factor in appraising performance.

    Quest also pointed to a 26 percent overall increase, over the past five years, in positives from testing conducted after accidents at work: 9.7 percent of such tests came back positive for something in 2021. For federally mandated testing of workers in safety-sensitive positions after accidents, the rate of positives has climbed faster, but from a lower base: 4.4 percent of these tests were positive in 2021.

    The data raise the question of why drug testing in non-safety-sensitive positions is still being conducted.

    In a press statement, Quest representatives framed the rise in post-accident positives as alarming,although such results do not demonstrate that an accident was caused by drug use. They also described drug use affecting the work environment—which is not, of course, what their testing measures—as a complex problem that is not going away.

    That is predictable from a company that makes its money from workplace drug testing. But the data once again raise the question of why drug testing in non-safety-sensitive positions is still being conducted. And it should be remembered that 95.4 percent of drug tests that employers deem necessary come back entirely negative, with most of the remainder positive only for cannabis.

     


     

    Photograph by Phil Whitehouse via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0 

    • Alex is Filter’s news editor. He previously worked as a reporter and copy editor at VICE, and has been published in The New York Times MagazineThe Columbia Journalism Review, The Los Angeles Times and The New Republic, among other outlets. He was also previously a freelance editorial consultant for the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World; The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, has received grants from the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World. He is currently based in Los Angeles.

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