Does workplace drug testing work?

drug-testing-worksAs marijuana becomes more widely accepted, some are questioning if workplace drug testing for marijuana and other illicit drugs is appropriate or even necessary. Some argue that the so-called “war on drugs” is over and, therefore, drug testing provides no value. Yet, the reality is that there is a wealth of empirical research conducted by government and independent organizations that shows that workplace drug use puts all of us at risk – and that workplace drug testing can help to foster healthier, safer, drug-free work environments.

We reviewed published research and articles to help to highlight some key points such as how people under the influence of drugs perform their job duties, if drug use in our society is increasing, the effectiveness of workplace drug testing and whether screening discourages use.

Safety-Sensitive Workers Should Not Use Drugs

Drug use unfavorably affects driving and other safety-sensitive job functions. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) continues to conduct research regarding the issue of impairment and safety. According to Cannabis Effects on Driving Skills, study authors provide data about the negative effects of marijuana on drivers, including an increase in lane weaving, poor reaction times and decreased attention to the road as well as a heightened risk of involvement in an accident. Use of alcohol with marijuana made drivers more impaired, causing even more lane weaving. In addition, the U.S. Department of Justice estimates that 50 percent of all on-the-job accidents and up to 40 percent of employee theft is related to substance abuse.

Drug Use is Increasing

Drug use and abuse is on the rise. Data from the latest Quest Diagnostics Drug Testing Index™ report showed that the positivity rate in the general U.S. workforce increased overall by 9.3 percent, to 4.7 percent in 2014, which is driven by an upsurge in cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine use. Marijuana positivity in the general U.S. workforce increased 14.3 percent (2.4% in 2014 vs. 2.1% in 2013). In addition, marijuana positivity increased 20 percent in Colorado and 23 percent in Washington – both states where recreational marijuana use is legal. Also consider the latest report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) regarding drug use rates in the U.S. among people aged 12 or older:

  • Approximately 27 million Americans were current illicit drug users in 2014 (up from 23.9 million in 2013), representing 10.2 percent of the population.
  • Illicit drug use continues to be propelled primarily by marijuana use with 22.2 million current marijuana users.
  • Eight (8.4) percent of people were current marijuana users in 2014 – up from the percentages in 2002 to 2013.

Drug Users Try to Avoid Drug Testing

Research demonstrates that workplace drug testing helps to deter employees from using drugs on the job and candidates from applying for jobs at companies that drug test. Consider these facts:

  • A 1999 federal government study of current drug users who were employed found that 40 percent said they were less likely to work for a company that conducted random drug testing. Thirty percent said they were less likely to work for a company that conducted pre-employment drug testing.
  • In a 1990 survey of U.S. Navy personnel by Paul Mulloy in the Drug-Free Workplace Report, 83 percent indicated that drug testing was the number one deterrent to drug use and 27 percent said they would resume using drugs if the Navy discontinued its drug testing program.
  • Employers who drug test have seen their drug test positivity rates decline over time. “The Quest Diagnostics Drug Testing Index provides the best evidence to date that the Drug-Free Workplace Act and the public and private initiatives it helped to spur have led to steep declines in drug use among much of the American workforce,” said Laura Shelton, Executive Director, Drug and Alcohol Testing Industry Association (DATIA).


For the anti-drug testing voices, it’s critical to understand that a decrease in drug test positivity rates does not mean that drug testing doesn’t work or isn’t needed. Actually, it’s quite the opposite, in that drug testing likely helped to drive down drug test positivity rates. Furthermore, the Quest Diagnostics Drug Testing Index 25th anniversary report measured an unprecedented 125+ million workplace urine drug tests performed since 1988. Insights from the report showed that although drug use among American workers has declined 74 percent during the past quarter century, the rate of positive test results for certain drugs continue to climb.

The bottom line is that drug testing does work. And, in order to reap the benefits that drug testing helps to provide, employers must remain vigilant in their testing programs to keep workforces drug-free.

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