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More employees test positive for drugs

September 15, 2014
by Gary Enos
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For the first time in more than a decade, positive rates for urine drug tests in the combined general workforce and safety-sensitive occupations is increasing, based on data from one of the major diagnostic testing labs.

Diagnostic lab Quest Diagnostics says the increases in part reflect general patterns of greater use of drugs such as marijuana in the U.S. population. Company officials add that they remain keenly interested in how relaxed marijuana laws in some jurisdictions might begin to affect trends in workplace test results in coming years.

Quest Diagnostics last week released its latest Drug Testing Index, showing that 3.7% of urine tests performed by its laboratories in the combined workforce came back with a positive reading in 2013, compared with 3.5% of tests conducted in 2012. This was the first such increase since 2003. The company's analysis looks at both private employers and workplaces that are subject to federal drug testing regulations, such as those that employ truck drivers, transportation workers and other individuals performing safety-sensitive roles.

Marijuana stands as the most commonly detected illegal drug, and the percentage of lab tests that came back positive for marijuana increased slightly from 1.6% in 2012 to 1.7% in 2013. The survey pointed out that while Colorado and Washington both saw increases of at least 20% in marijuana positives in the year after voters approved limited recreational use of the drug in those states, positive rates in the two states already had been on the rise in 2012, the year that their voters were considering the legalization ballot items.

“We will be very interested to see how our data evolves over the next year or two in these two states relative to those that have not legalized so-called 'recreational' marijuana,” Barry Sample, director of science and technology for Quest Diagnostics Employer Solutions, said in a news release from the testing company.

One consequence of relaxed state marijuana laws, allowing more widespread use for medical or recreational purposes, has been some uncertainty in drug-testing workplaces over whether they should continue to test for marijuana and how they should address positive results. Bill Current, president of Current Consulting Group and a close tracker of state laws governing workplace testing, believes that the increased marijuana use that is now being seen in higher percentages of positive tests will eventually manifest as increased workplace injuries and workers' compensation claims, adding to companies' financial burden.

“The legalization of pot doesn't change the fact that marijuana is still illegal under federal law and it is still dangerous in the workplace,” says Current. “It is important for employers to understand that even in states with medical marijuana laws they still have the right, and I would add obligation, to drug test for marijuana and hold employees accountable for being at work while under the influence of pot.”

Other tests, technologies

The Quest report also found these trends in workplace testing:

  • The rate of positive tests for amphetamines, including methamphetamine, increased from 0.77% to 0.85% from 2012 to 2013 in the combined workforce. This puts amphetamine positives at their highest level on record, with methamphetamine positives at their highest level since 2007. Current says about the report's findings in general, “Unfortunately, the trends are definitely heading in the wrong direction. Rates of substance abuse are up in most drug categories and for most drug testing situations.”

  • However, some declines are being seen for positive tests for prescription opioids. From 2011 to 2013, for example, oxycodone positivity rates actually dropped from 1.1% to 0.88%.

  • Quest also conducts oral fluid tests in addition to urinalysis, and its positive test rates for marijuana in oral fluid testing climbed from 4% in 2012 to 5.1% in 2013, after an even steeper increase the year before. Quest attributed this trend in part to its introduction of new oral fluid testing technology in 2011.