What’s behind the 12-year “High” in Drug Positivity Rates?

First, the bottom line: drug test evidence from the 2017 Quest Diagnostics Drug Testing Index™ shows that use of illegal drugs among the workforce is at its highest point in 12 years, and is trending upwards. The trends hold across several types of tests, for both safety-sensitive and general workers. The summary is that 4.2% of workers tested positive for one of the most common illegal drugs, compared with 4.0% from last year, it is a relative increase of about 5%.

Employers who intend to run a drug-free workplace should take note, and make sure their drug-testing program is in order. It is legal to drug test your employees, and prospective hires, but like any background screening program, it must be carefully designed to comply with regulations.

The Quest Diagnostics data indicates that the “most popular” illegal drugs have all trended up with the exception of heroin, which has plateaued, and prescription opioids, which have actually declined. Here are some details:

Cocaine: Positivity for cocaine increased 12% year-over-year, which is a lot, but an equally important fact is that the level of use is about the same in safety-sensitive jobs with federally-mandated testing, and in the general workforce. Just because someone has tested “clean” during the onboarding process does not mean they will remain that way, even in safety-sensitive jobs.

Marijuana: Positivity for marijuana continues to increase across the workforce, very strongly in the past 3 years. The data allow comparisons of the general workforce with states like Washington and Colorado which legalized recreational marijuana several years ago. For the first time, the urine-testing data shows that Washington and Colorado marijuana use has increased faster than national averages. The incidence in Colorado was 2.90%, in Washington at 3.08%, and for the national sample 2.5%.

Methamphetamine: Positivity for amphetamines, including methamphetamine, generally continues to increase, continuing a trend since 2012. Although meth is notorious as a street drug, much of the increase in amphetamine use is with prescription drugs like Adderall, according to Quest Diagnostics. Although the general workforce has had a stronger increase in positivity than safety-sensitive jobs, all categories have been increasing in recent years.

Heroin and Opiates: Heroin use has plateaued and prescription opiate detection has declined. There is no certain reason for this, but government policies have worked to increase physician awareness of the dangers of prescribing opiates. The reason for the flat result for heroin is also uncertain, but we note that the report does not explicitly address Fentanyl, an extremely potent opioid that has gained increasing popularity in illegal forms.

Quest Diagnostics’ recent summary of its annual workforce drug testing program is the most recent in a program that has been running since 1988. It is one of the largest, if not THE largest, testing programs in America, permitting cross-drug, cross-year comparisons for both federally-mandated, safety-sensitive workers and the workforce in general.

Employers should take the Quest data seriously, while it may seem that 1%, 2% or 3% of positive tests is “pretty good,” the fact is that just one of these positive workers can pose a serious threat. Drug screening on a regular basis is highly recommended for companies wishing to promote a drug-free workplace.

About MichaelGaul

Michael is a results-oriented marketing executive with over two decades of experience in employment screening, physical security, and business process management. Michael has deep experience in human capital risk management and a passion for educating business leaders and HR professionals on strategies that tangibly protect their interests. Michael serves on the Board of the Secure Cash and Transport Association (SCTA) and is a member of the Professional Background Screening Association (PBSA), and the American Society of Industrial Security (ASIS).
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