By Anne Marie Chaker May 18, 2023 5:30 am ET
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As legal marijuana expands in the U.S., a record share of workers is testing positive for the substance in workplace drug screening.
Overall drug use among workers tested by employers generally held steady last year, according to an annual tally from Quest Diagnostics, one of the country’s largest drug-testing laboratories. In drug tests given to workers after accidents on the job, marijuana positives rose sharply last year, hitting the highest level in a quarter-century.
Of the more than six million general workforce tests that Quest screened for marijuana in 2022, 4.3% came back positive, up from 3.9% the prior year. That is the largest marijuana positivity rate since 1997. Positivity rates last year for certain classes of opioids and barbiturates declined.
While marijuana was the main driver of the rise in positive drug tests, more tests also came back positive for amphetamines. Positive tests for amphetamines rose to 1.5% in 2022, up from 1.3% in 2021, according to Quest, which doesn’t differentiate between prescribed medications and illicit drug use.
More than two-thirds of U.S. states have legalized recreational or medicinal use of marijuana. That push has some employers questioning whether to keep testing for the drug, as they weigh safety risks and legal liabilities.
The U.S.’s patchwork of rules makes employer oversight a minefield, said Scott Pollins, an employee-rights lawyer in Philadelphia. Workers might live in areas where marijuana is allowed and still be subject to federal testing requirements, or they may work for a company with a policy that subjects employees to testing. Employers should be careful about punishing workers based on a positive marijuana test, he added.
The percentage of employees that tested positive for marijuana following an on-the-job accident rose to 7.3% in 2022, an increase of 9% compared with the prior year. From 2012 to 2022, post-accident marijuana positive test rates tripled, tracking with widening legalization. Because some drug screens can detect drug use that goes back days, if not weeks, a positive marijuana test may not indicate on-the-job use, said Katie Mueller, a senior program manager at the nonprofit National Safety Council, which provides employers with safety training and education. This makes it hard for employers to tell if their workers are impaired on the job, she added.
The council developed a program in 2021 to help supervisors identify when an employee is showing signs of impairment, whether from drugs, alcohol or sleep deprivation. “Drug testing isn’t a single solution,” Mueller said.
Shifting cultural norms, labor shortages and the changing legal backdrop has led some employers to stop screening workers for marijuana
The drop comes as employers have struggled to hire enough front-line workers and fear losing talent to competitors.
“If you have to drive to a lab and wait three days to get results, that’s an annoyance,” for a job applicant, said Chris Layden, senior vice president with ManpowerGroup. “‘You’re just going to take another job.”
The National Basketball Association’s new collective bargaining agreement with the players’ union would remove marijuana from the prohibited-substance list. Pending the agreement’s finalization, beginning July 1, players won’t be randomly tested for marijuana for the 2023-24 NBA season, a league spokesman said.
Amazon excludes marijuana from its pre-employment drug screening program for many roles. Senior Vice President Beth Galetti has written that the testing disproportionately impacts people of color, and that eliminating the screens allows the company to expand its applicant pool. Amazon employees in pharmacy jobs or who are subject to Transportation Department regulations, such as drivers, are still tested for marijuana, the company said.
Butterball Farms, which employs 180 people at its butter-manufacturing plant in Grand Rapids, Mich., said new employees still get screened for other drugs, but the company eliminated marijuana from its battery of tests in 2021. One reason: A positive test can result from use as far back as a month, said Chief Executive Mark Peters, and doesn’t necessarily correlate to impairment on the job.
“That is an issue, and if you’re using it as a check mark for onboarding, you’ve cut your number of people down significantly that may otherwise qualify,” he said.
For employers that still test for marijuana, rising positivity rates span industries, according to Quest. Some of the biggest increases last year were in the accommodation, food services and retail sectors.
Rayne Palombit, a 31-year old psychologist in Los Angeles, said that she smokes a marijuana vape some evenings and on a night out with friends might bring a beverage that contains tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. She considers them preferable alternatives to alcohol.
“It’s nice to be able to be out and have fun and not get wasted,” she said. Though Palombit lives in a state where marijuana is legal, she was subject to a drug test for a recent job opening at a center for troubled teens.
“I had to stop using marijuana for 30 days in order to pass the test,” she said. “I’m a professional person who uses legal substances.”