Is It Time to Scrap Workplace Drug Tests?

Sad worker lady.

According to recent news reports, some employers have given up on trying to keep their businesses drug-free through the use of workplace drug tests. Is this the right way to go? Should employers quit trying to weed out the employees who show up to work affected by alcohol or drugs? Should they just simply stop testing and hope for the best?

Let’s take a look at various aspects of this decision business owners and managers have to make.

Why Is There a Problem with Drug Tests?

Several years ago when I was living in a small town in Oklahoma, I heard about a fairly large boat manufacturing and repair business that was trying to hire new employees.

This particular town had a pretty severe drug problem like so many other towns and cities across America. The owner of this business said he had rejected a long list of applicants because they did not pass a pre-employment drug test. To find enough people to fill his vacancies, the owner said he was going to have to go through the applications and find out which people had tested positive only for marijuana and look at hiring those.

According to a report in USA Today, this is now the hiring approach of many employers across the country. In their report, they cited the statistics released in a yearly report from workplace drug testing company Quest Diagnostics. The December 2018 USA Today article states: “a growing share of employers waive pre-employment drug tests or overlook positive results, especially for marijuana, amid the spread of legalized pot and a tight labor market that’s making it harder to find qualified workers.”

Further, some employers are now only drug-testing prospective employees who are slated for “safety sensitive” positions like pilots, truck drivers, ship captains, airline mechanics, locomotive engineers, bus drivers and forklift operators.

But any drug user could present a safety hazard for others just by their reckless behavior.

The USA Today article also noted that the huge employer AutoNation stopped rejecting job applicants who tested positive for marijuana in 2016. They currently have 27,000 employees.

Cheff smoking

The Quest Diagnostics analysis of workplace drug test results found that the industries most affected by positive drug tests included retail, healthcare, real estate, accommodations, food service, and information. Least affected were finance/insurance and transportation/warehousing (this last, very likely because transportation employees and forklift operators are tested more consistently).

Marijuana Use in the Workplace

Employers may consider hiring marijuana-using workers inevitable but undesirable. Not surprisingly, many marijuana users don’t consider that pot use impairs their work performance.

The car sales company Instamotor surveyed marijuana users on how they felt about driving and going to work under the influence. Surveys of 600 pot smokers in states where recreational use was legal revealed that:

  • 39% feel comfortable getting behind the wheel within two hours of smoking pot or otherwise consuming THC products.
  • 48% have gone to work high at some point.
  • 39% go to work high at least once a week.
  • 73% feel they perform their work better when they are high.

If you ever received service from a person who was stoned, you probably know that the last survey response is far from the truth, no matter what the drug user’s perceptions of his own work are.

It seems to be a safe conclusion that businesses across the country are going to be hiring more people who are marijuana users and many of those hired will consider it acceptable to go to work high or after recent use of marijuana.

About THC, the Primary Intoxicant in Marijuana

There’s a little more to know about THC. Once marijuana is consumed, THC or tetrahydrocannabinol is very slowly broken down by the body. When a substance like this lasts a long time, it is said to have a long half-life—the time required for a substance in the body to decrease by half.

Of course, every person breaks down THC at a slightly different rate depending on many factors, including the health of the user, how frequently marijuana is used and how much is used. One study looked at the half-life of THC among various kinds of users:

  • Infrequent users had an average half-life of 1.3 days.
  • Frequent users had had a half-life ranging from 5 to 13 days.

As the body breaks down THC to get rid of it, a chemical called THC-COOH is produced. This chemical can be detected in recent marijuana users for hours and even days. This study also found that:

  • Among 52 volunteers, THC-COOH was detectable in the blood for 3.5 to 74 hours.
  • One chronic user still had detectable amounts of THC-COOH in his blood 25 days after the last use.

It’s entirely possible that a person who only smokes pot on the weekend could still have THC and THC byproducts circulating in his body most days or every day he (or she) is on the job. As yet, there are no definitive studies on the effects of THC or THC-COOH hours or days after consumption of cannabis products.

The Effects on Employers

Work accident—drugged worker fail from the stairs.

If employers no longer screen prospective hires for drug or alcohol use, what are the possible effects on their businesses?

According to an article in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, substance use disorders cost more than $400 billion per year. And that estimate does not include the effects of employees coming to work drunk, hungover or simply fogged out because of prior alcohol use.

Businesses lose money because of lost productivity and absenteeism, employee turnover, increased health care and disability expenses and higher workers’ compensation claims.

Even if they eliminate pre-employment drug tests, there are still steps employers can take to maintain safer, more drug-free workplaces. For example:

  • They can offer drug and alcohol education lessons designed for a workplace or corporate environment. Not just once, but on an ongoing basis.
  • Working with Human Resources, an employer can establish procedures for helping an employee who wishes to stop using drugs or drinking excessively. These procedures could include helping the employee find a rehab program if they are addicted, or referring them to further education or counseling to help them make this change if they are not addicted.
  • There are toolkits available from a variety of agencies such as the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the Department of Labor, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration that can guide any employer in the steps to maintain a drug-free workplace.
  • Employers may feel the need to stop random or pre-employment testing for drugs, but they would still be smart to conduct “for cause” tests after accidents, injuries or an observed inability to perform on the job to help keep the workplace safe.

Reviewed and Edited by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP


Karen Hadley

For more than a decade, Karen has been researching and writing about drug trafficking, drug abuse, addiction and recovery. She has also studied and written about policy issues related to drug treatment.