More U.S. Workers Test Positive for Certain Illicit Drugs

Fewer U.S. workers tested positive for prescription painkillers last year, but cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana use surged, according to new data from Quest Diagnostics , DGX -1.22% one of the largest drug-testing laboratories in the U.S.

The share of American workers and job applicants testing positive for illicit drugs in 2017 was 4.2%, holding steady on the prior year, the data show. Quest analyzed more than 10 million urine tests conducted on behalf of employers.

“It’s striking as we look at all this data and see continuing increases in the use of illicit drugs. That’s a concern for everyone,” said Barry Sample, Quest’s senior director for science and technology.

The federal Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988 ushered in an era of job-related drug-testing, prompting a rapid decrease in positive tests. Since the mid-2000s, the positivity rate has hovered close to 4%, although it hit a 30-year-low of 3.5% in 2012, Quest said. Positive tests for opiates, such as morphine and oxycodone, dropped sharply by 17% in 2017 from the year before, likely reflecting continuing crackdowns on illegal or excessive opioid prescriptions, Mr. Sample said.

Positive tests for marijuana rose in states that have recently legalized the drug for medical or recreational use. In Nevada, where voters legalized marijuana use starting in January 2017, positives were up 43% last year.

Quest data suggested a continuing surge in methamphetamine use in the Midwest, South and parts of the Northeast. Some states, including Nebraska and Idaho, saw sharp increases in cocaine positives.

The Quest data combines results for the general workforce along with tests of workers in safety-sensitive jobs, such as pilots, bus drivers and nuclear power plant operators, who are subject to federally mandated testing, including random checks. In the general workforce, 5% of tests came back positive for an illicit substance, up from 4.9% in 2016. Of people in safety-sensitive roles, 2.1% tested positive in 2017, up from 2% the prior year.

In all, 2.6% of workers Quest tested in the general workforce showed positive results for marijuana, although the company said fewer customers are requesting the marijuana test.

While marijuana is still an illicit substance at the federal level, 30 states and the District of Columbia have adopted laws making it legal in some form, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Even in states that have loosened or dropped restrictions on buying, selling and using marijuana, the legal status of the drug is unstable, said  Danielle Urban, a partner in the Denver office of law firm Fisher Phillips LLP.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in January rescinded a memo from President Barack Obama’s

administration that directed prosecutors to make marijuana enforcement a low priority. Employers in most states still have a right—and a fair amount of discretion—to maintain a drug-free workplace. But as the legal landscape rapidly shifts and qualified workers become harder to find, some employers are questioning the wisdom of rejecting employees because they may have smoked pot.

“Does the fact that someone smokes marijuana recreationally make them a bad employee? No,” said Tracie Sponenberg, senior vice president of human resources at the Granite Group, a wholesaler of plumbing, heating and other supplies in New Hampshire, where marijuana is still illegal.

The company employs many drivers, who are required by federal law to undergo regular drug testing and it only tests workers who are in those safety-sensitive roles, said Ms. Sponenberg, who also sits on the special-expertise committee of the Society for Human Resource Management.

She said a prior employer of hers had a policy of randomly testing a sample of workers at a warehouse that stored pharmaceutical products. A few years ago, a handful of employees who were tested in one batch received marijuana positives. The company decided not to fire any of them.

“We would have severely depleted our staff,” she said.

Instead, the workers were offered a chance to take the test a second time.

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