Positive drug tests for U.S. workers hit a record high since 2001

Apr 19, 2022

According to recent data released by Quest Diagnostics, one of the largest drug-testing laboratories in the U.S., the incidence of positive drug tests among U.S. workers has reached its highest level in two decades over the past year. Furthermore, the results of the study show that this increase was in part driven by an augmentation in positive cannabis tests.

The analysis carried out by Quest Diagnostics was based on 6 million urine drug tests conducted between January and December 2021, and it was found that positivity rates for cannabis increased from 0.79% in 2020 to 0.86% in 2021, corresponding to an augmentation of 8.9%. In addition, these figures correspond to a 50% increase since 2017, as the number of U.S. states that have legalized cannabis use has grown.

It has been suggested that the increase in the rate of positive drug tests may be due to its increasing legalization, as well as due to employers loosening their screening policies during nationwide labour shortages.

Despite the increase in positivity last year, fewer companies tested their employees for THC, said Dr. Barry Sample, Quest’s senior scientific consultant.

According to Dr. Sample, changes in legislation and cultural attitudes have prompted some employers to stop testing for cannabis, while companies in some states are prohibited from using test results to make hiring decisions.

“We’ve been seeing year-over-year declines [of numbers of drug tests used to screen for THC] in those recreational-use states, but by far the largest drop we’ve ever seen was in 2021,” he said in his interview with Wall Street Journal.

The data provided by Quest shows that the percentage of specimens tested for THC declined by 6.7% across the U.S. in 2021 compared to 2020, and by 10.3% in states where recreational cannabis use is legal.

“We certainly heard from some of our employer customers that they were having difficulty finding qualified workers to pass the [pre-employment THC] drug test,” Dr. Sample said.

After analyzing nearly nine million urine tests last year on behalf of employers,

Quest also found that the proportion of U.S. workers who tested positive for the various drugs Quest screened for in 2021 rose to 4.6%, which is the highest level since 2001.

According to Tammy Turner, co-owner of Kapstone Employment Services, a Detroit-based staffing agency that works with companies that supply major automobile manufacturers, she had encouraged regional employers to loosen their THC-screening policies for many positions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“So many of our clients were adamant, in pre-Covid, that they would not accept anyone that could not pass a drug test, even if it was THC,” said Turner. “We had to encourage some of them to reassess their policy, and they did, and we were able to fill many of those jobs as a result.” However, Kerry Buffington, the co-owner of the company, noted that for certain positions, including those that involve heavy machinery use, Kapstone still screens applicants for THC and other drug use, as required by the federal government.