The many problems with employee drug-testing

It's an imperfect science, to say the least

Employees waiting
(Image credit: (Thinkstock))

If you go by Quest Diagnostic's 2013 Drug Testing Index, fewer American workers are using drugs than they did in 1988, when the organization started screening employee urine samples. Twenty-five years ago, 13.6 percent of samples came back positive, while this year the number was a mere 3.5 percent.

Over the same period, the number of private businesses that administer the tests has risen. The Society for Human Resource Management says 57 percent of American businesses required all job candidates to pass a drug test in 2011, and another 10 percent tested just certain applicants.

From an employer's perspective, the idea is that bosses have the right to know if the folks on their payroll are clear-headed and drug-free on the job. Sobriety, they say, makes for a safer and more productive workforce, and either pre-employment or random testing is a surefire way to keep employees off drugs.

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But drug testing is a little trickier today than it was in 1988.

Take marijuana, for example, which more states are legalizing for medical and recreational purposes. A positive test could mean an employee is a pothead, or coping with their anxiety via a totally legal prescription outside office hours.

And it's unclear how accurate the tests really are. Quest's claim that marijuana use has dropped to under 3 percent for American workers seems to contradict a 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which found that 7.3 percent of Americans over the age of 12 have smoked in the last month. "That disparity could mean that workers have found more ways to evade or manipulate tests," says The Wall Street Journal.

That may help explain the proliferation of herbal urine cleansers that claim to wash your pee, and sites like, where people can buy artificial piss to help them pass drug tests.

Another possible reason for the discrepancy: 75 percent of workplace drug-testing is part of pre-employment screening, says Quartz's Roberto A. Ferdman:

That affords those being tested a warning to curb their usage before the test. Basic urine testing — which is still the most comment form of drug screening — often fails to detect traces of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, after only a few weeks (pdf). [Quartz]

Prescription drugs pose another problem. For several years, Quest has reported an uptick in prescription drugs like hydrocodone and oxycodone in the workplace. Some of these drugs, while legal, are still known to impair workers.

In a 2010 story, The New York Times explained, "What companies consider an effort to maintain a safe work environment is drawing complaints from employees who cite privacy concerns and contend that they should not be fired for taking legal medications, sometimes for injuries sustained on the job."

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