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Positive Drug Tests Are on the Rise – Here’s What it Means for Your Workplace

The number of American workers testing positive for drugs hit a 20-year high in 2021, according to a recent analysis by Quest Diagnostics. For today’s employers who are desperately trying hire and retain productive workers, this adds a new wrinkle in an already complex workforce landscape. Here, we explore what’s happening and steps employers can take to stay ahead of this troubling trend.  

Steady climb in workforce drug use 

The Quest Diagnostics Drug Testing Index Analysis shows overall positivity rates increased to 4.6 percent, up slightly from 4.4 percent in 2020. But, those numbers are up more than 30 percent from the lowest positivity rates on record, 3.5 percent in 2010-2012.  

A similar steady climb is seen when you break down positivity rates for federally mandated testing versus general workforce testing (where testing is not mandated). From 2020 to 2021, there’s no change in positivity rates for mandated testing, and a slight 1.8 percent increase in general workforce testing. Yet since 2017, positivity rates for both groups have increased, 4.8 percent and 12 percent, respectively.  

Marijuana testing and post-accident testing saw some of the biggest jumps in positivity rates. The analysis shows:  

  • An 8.3 percent increase in marijuana positivity rates in the general workforce, the highest positivity rate ever reported in the Quest DTI, and a 50 percent jump in just five years (since 2017).   
  • 63.4 percent and 266.7 percent increases in 2021 positivity rates for urine post-accident testing in the U.S. general workforce for marijuana and cocaine, respectively, compared to pre-employment tests. 
  • 316.7 percent and 200 percent increases in 2021 positivity rates for urine post-accident testing in the U.S. general workforce for opiates (hydrocodone/hydromorphone) and oxycodones (oxycodone/oxymorphone), respectively, compared to pre-employment testing.

The Quest data echoes the results of a 2021 drug testing survey from Current Consulting Group, which revealed that post-accident positivity rates soared by 17 percent across all industries. In the transportation industry, rates skyrocketed 74 percent compared to the prior year.  

So, what’s fueling these increases? One reason may be the evolving public perception of drug use.  

Changing attitudes toward drug use   

For decades, the workplace was dominated by baby boomers and Generation X workers who came of age amid prolific global and nationwide anti-drug campaigns. Think: the “War on Drugs” and “Just Say No.” The widespread, fear-based messaging in these campaigns directly influenced American attitudes on drug use for decades.  

Today, however, those attitudes are shifting as boomers and Gen X are now outnumbered by younger workers with a different coming-of-age story. Millennials, who (by themselves) are expected to represent roughly 40 percent of the U.S. workforce by 2025, and the rising Generation Z workforce, have grown up watching the decriminalization of marijuana sweep across the country. In several jurisdictions today, marijuana and cannabis products can be legally bought and sold in brick-and-mortar storefronts, something unimaginable forty years ago.  

For a glimpse into the evolving American mindset, consider these statistics on marijuana use.  

  • In 2021, 49 percent of Americans admitted to trying marijuana , compared to only 4 percent a little over 50 years ago (early 1970s), according to a recent Gallup poll 
  • Today, 66 percent of Americans believe recreational use of marijuana should be legalized, according to a March 2022 CBS News poll 
  • An overwhelming 91 percent of Americans believe marijuana should be legalized for medical and/or recreational use, according to a Pew Research Poll.

Bottom line: perceptions around drug use are changing. As a result, we’re likely seeing it play out in the workplace with clear spikes in positivity rates for specific drugs and testing scenarios.   

What can employers do?  

Though public perceptions of drug use may be changing, the outcome of workplace substance abuse has not changed; it still poses a significant threat to the workplace. Some of the negative impacts can include: 

  • Increased workplace accidents and employee-related risk 
  • Higher rates of tardiness, sick days and unexcused absenteeism 
  • Decreased performance and productivity 
  • Lower workplace morale 
  • Potentially higher insurance premiums 

 Knowing this, employers can take steps today to stay ahead of evolving workplace trends. Here are a couple ideas to consider right way.  

  1. Work with your employment screening provider and/or drug testing vendor to analyze trends. This can be accomplished a couple of ways. Some platforms offer dashboard views of program analytics that provide real-time and trended insights into overall testing activity. Alternatively, some providers will analyze your program results and present their findings on a regular basis, usually annually.  

    In either case, work closely with your provider to interpret what your program analytics mean for your business and your employees. For instance, are positivity rates spiking in the fourth quarter because you’re hiring seasonal workers, or is a bigger trend emerging? An experienced screening providers can add valuable context around what other employers within your industry are experiencing in their drug testing programs. Also, if you’re reviewing your program analytics once a year, consider increasing the frequency to quarterly reviews to help you stay ahead of fast-moving trends.  

  2. Lean on your provider for the latest drug testing best practices and recommendations. This might involve changing the cadence of your drug testing, adjusting your drug test panels or introducing new testing methods or strategies.  

    For example, at First Advantage, we’re seeing increased interest in and use of instant oral fluid testing. Employers appreciate that it’s extremely candidate-friendly, which can be a differentiator in today’s ultra-competitive hiring market. Plus, it can help them hire and onboard more workers faster than traditional testing methods. In fact, 34 percent of employers participating in the 2021 Current Consulting Group survey said they will likely add oral fluid testing when the DOT adds lab-based oral fluid as an accepted testing specimen. Another 45 percent didn’t rule it out; instead, indicating they’re not sure and may simply need to learn more about it.

Given the changing public perception of “acceptable” drug use and steadily rising drug testing positivity rates, it may be time to adjust your drug testing program. With insight into “right-now” trends and the latest testing strategies, you can create a more candidate-friendly testing process that helps you quickly hire the best employees in today’s ultra-competitive labor market, while also building a safer, more productive workplace. At First Advantage, we can help. Get in touch today to learn more.  

This content is offered for informational purposes only. First Advantage is not a law firm, and this content does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice.  Information in this content may not constitute the most up-to-date legal or other information. 
Readers of this content should contact their attorney or lawyer to obtain advice with respect to any particular legal matter.  No reader, or user of this content should act or refrain from acting on the basis of information in this content without first seeking legal advice from counsel or lawyers in the relevant jurisdiction.  Only your individual attorney or legal advisor can provide assurances that the information contained herein – and your interpretation of it – is applicable or appropriate to your particular situation.  Use of, and access to, this content does not create an attorney-client relationship between the reader, or user of this presentation and First Advantage. 

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