Positive drug tests for employees hit 16-year high as marijuana legalization expands: report

Positive drug tests for employees hit 16-year high as marijuana legalization expands: report
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As recreational marijuana legalization has expanded to 11 states plus the District of Columbia, positive workplace drug tests have reportedly climbed to a 16-year high.

Positive test rates rose nearly 4.5 percent for the U.S. workforce in 2019, according to one of the largest drug-testing laboratories Quest Diagnostics, which sampled 9 million tests last year for employers, the Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday.

Positive marijuana urine tests saw the most significant climb, rising 11 percent from 2018 and climbing 29 percent since 2015.

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Experts say the issue could be compounded by the coronavirus pandemic, which initial data suggested has led to a rise in substance abuse and drug-related deaths throughout the United States.

Barry Sample, Quest's senior director for science and technology, said, "There is concern about the potential impact that COVID-19 is having on depression and people's substance use patterns," adding that the rate of positive detections was already trending upward before the pandemic started.

In addition to marijuana, positive results for drugs such as methamphetamine and cocaine have also risen over the years.

Meanwhile, more employers are starting to take a hands-off approach when it comes to testing for pot. The number of urine drug tests that included marijuana declined 3 percent in the past five years and was down 6 percent in states that have completely legalized the substance.

Dale Gieringer, California director at the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said the data reflect the increasing legality of cannabis, calling it a "good thing."

Gieringer said there is no relationship between workplace performance and positive marijuana results because tests can detect inactive metabolites in a person's sample days after usage. 

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"It is sort of like looking through workers' trash at the end of the weekend and seeing if there are any empty beer or wine bottles in it," he said. "It doesn't really tell you much about how well a person performed on the job."

Positive rates for more potent narcotics such as opiates fell 19 percent in 2019 from the year before and 49 percent since 2015. 

Rates for heroin usage also dropped 33 percent from 2018 and halved since its peak in 2015 and 2016.