Marijuana Use Up Among Workers; Opioid Use Down

Roy Maurer By Roy Maurer April 30, 2019

​More U.S. workers are testing positive for marijuana while the number testing positive for opioids continues to decline, according to the annual Quest Diagnostics Drug Testing Index.

Based on an analysis of nine million drug tests conducted in 2018, Quest determined that 5.1 percent of the general workforce tested positive for drugs and another 2.7 percent of workers in safety-sensitive positions regulated by federal law did so. Those in safety-sensitive jobs include pilots; rail, bus and truck drivers; and workers in nuclear power plants.

The combined data from the general and safety-sensitive workforce demographics show that, overall, 4.4 percent of the U.S. workforce had positive drug screens in 2018, the highest such rate since 2004 but a far cry from Quest's first drug-testing analysis in 1988, when the drug positivity rate was 13.6 percent.

The 2018 data show a continuing trend of increased marijuana use among workers: The number of workers and job applicants who tested positive for marijuana climbed 10 percent last year to 2.3 percent. Positive test results for urine testing of marijuana, the most common type of testing done, continue to rise both for the general U.S. workforce and in regulated, safety-sensitive industries. Positive test results rose 8 percent for the general workforce to 2.8 percent and increased 5 percent for those in safety-sensitive jobs to 0.88 percent.

In the general U.S. workforce, the positivity rate for opiates (mostly codeine and morphine) in urine drug testing declined nearly 21 percent in 2018 to 0.31 percent, the largest drop in three years.

2019 Quest Diagnostics Drug Testing Index

"Our analysis shows that marijuana is not only present in our workforce, but use continues to increase," said Barry Sample, senior director of science and technology at Quest Diagnostics. "As marijuana policy changes and employers consider strategies to protect their employees, customers and general public, employers should weigh the risks that drug use, including marijuana, poses to their business."

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Changing Legal Landscape

State and federal legislation reflect the changing attitude toward marijuana: Over 30 states have legalized medical marijuana and 10 states and Washington, D.C., permit recreational use, but workers in safety-sensitive jobs regulated by the federal government are still held to the federal ban on drug use.

Federal employees have been prohibited from using drugs since 1986, and widespread drug testing and zero-tolerance drug policies began in earnest after the Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988 was enacted.

But times are changing. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., introduced legislation in February to make marijuana use legal under federal law. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-Fla., proposed a bill in 2018 that would prevent federal workers from being fired solely for using marijuana legally according to their state laws. Legislation meant to better define the rights of medical marijuana users has been introduced in recent months, and at least one state has effectively nullified pre-employment screening for marijuana.

The New York City Council passed legislation April 9 that bans pre-employment testing for marijuana. That ban is scheduled to go into effect next year.

"Prospective employers don't test for alcohol, so marijuana should be no different," said Jumaane Williams, New York City's public advocate, a Democratic councilman from Brooklyn and the bill's sponsor. "But in no way does this bill justify individuals going to work under the influence," he added. "We need to be creating more access points for employment, not less, and, as we push for legalization on a state level, it makes absolutely no sense that we're keeping people from finding jobs or advancing their careers because of marijuana use."

Rethinking Zero Tolerance

Some employers have stopped screening for marijuana among job candidates, Sample said.

Due to the low unemployment rate, a shortage of qualified workers and the fact that marijuana use is legal in some states, it has become harder to make the argument for marijuana screening or for taking adverse action based on positive tests.

"You watch what's going on in society … and you say, 'We've got to adjust,' " said Marc Cannon, a spokesman for AutoNation, the largest U.S. car retailer. The company stopped screening for marijuana three years ago. "A lot of great candidates were failing the test," Cannon told the Los Angeles Times. "There are people who drink and are great workers, but they don't do it on the job. Marijuana is just like alcohol."

In 2014, Target stopped across-the-board screening and instead began focusing only on safety-sensitive positions such as security guards and warehouse machinery operators. Kroger, a Cincinnati-based grocery store chain narrowed its drug screens to just one-fifth of its job candidates, including managers and pharmacy workers.



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