Human Resources News & Insights

Red flag for employers: Positive drug tests on the rise

More incentive to review your drug policies: the percentage of U.S. workers testing positive for illicit substances such as marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine have increased for the second consecutive year. 

That’s the news from Quest Diagnostics, a national clinical laboratory. Quest’s Drug Testing Index (DTI) shows that the positivity rate for approximately 6.6 million urine drug tests in the general U.S. workforce increased overall by 9.3%, to 4.7% in 2014 compared to 4.3% in 2013. 2013 was the first year since 2003 in which the overall positivity rate increased for urine drug tests.

The results suggest a potential reversal in the decades’ long decline in the abuse of illicit drugs in the U.S. workforce, Quest said, noting that overall positivity for oral fluid and hair drug tests, representing approximately 1.1 million tests, also increased between 2013 and 2014.

Marijuana still leads the pack

Marijuana continues to be the most commonly detected illicit drug, Quest said. Marijuana positivity in the general U.S. workforce increased 14.3% (2.4% in 2014 vs. 2.1% in 2013). By comparison, marijuana positivity in the same workforce category increased 5% between 2012 and 2013. In the safety-sensitive workforce, marijuana positivity increased 6% (0.71% vs. 0.67%) between 2013 and 2014, compared to 5.6% between 2012 and 2013.

Quest researchers also analyzed urine drug test data from two states with recreational marijuana-use laws. In Colorado and Washington, the marijuana positivity rate increased 14% (2.62% vs. 2.30%) and 16% (2.75% vs. 2.38%), respectively, between 2013 and 2014, roughly parallel to the national average of 14.3%.

As you’re well aware, conflicting pot laws have made it difficult for employers to know just where they can go with anti-marijuana policies. The American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine and the American Association of Occupational Health Nurses just published a report, “Marijuana in the Workplace: Guidance for Occupational Health Professionals and Employers,” to help guide policymakers through the maze of new regs.

Cocaine, meth up, too

The research also showed steady increases in workplace positivity for cocaine over the past two years, reversing a prolonged period of decline. The positivity rate for cocaine in urine tests increased by 9.1% (0.24% vs. 0.22%) between 2013 and 2014. Urine drug tests account for the vast majority of cocaine drug tests. The positivity rate also increased in oral fluid and hair specimens, by 30.6% and 13.0%, respectively, year over year.

Urine drug tests showed a 7.2% year-over-year increase in amphetamines positivity in 2014 compared to 2013 (1.04% vs. 0.97%). Methamphetamine positivity in urine drug tests increased 21.4% (0.17% vs. 0.14%); the positivity rate for oral fluid methamphetamine tests increased 37.5% (0.33% vs. 0.24%). Across all specimen types, the positivity rate for amphetamines is now at its highest levels on record and the positivity rate for methamphetamine is at its highest level since 2007.

What can managers do?

So there’s a look at the grim numbers. What should managers do when they suspect an employee is using drugs?

Here’s a checklist:

  • Look for the signs
  • Document, document, document
  • Get professional advice
  • Approach the person, but not as an enforcer, and
  • Present the plan and do what you can to implement it.

For a fuller look at the overall strategy, refer to our earlier post on the subject.

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