Marijuana consumption skews workforce drug test positivity rates

Sources: Quest Diagnostics, Secaucus, N.J.; CP staff

The Covid-19 pandemic did not dampen workforce drug testing positivity for marijuana, which continued to increase last year in the general U.S. workforce, according to a new Quest Diagnostics analysis. Based on seven million-plus urine drug tests collected between January and December 2020, the overall rate of 4.4 percent was down only slightly in 2020 versus 2019, whose 4.5 percent level marked a 16-year high. 

Positivity in the federally mandated, safety-sensitive workforce—reflecting more than 2 million urine drug tests—declined 8.3 percent (2.4 percent in 2019, 2.2 percent in 2020), but was still 10 percent higher than the 2016 rate. In the general U.S. workforce, positivity increased 3.8 percent (5.3 percent in 2019, 5.5 percent in 2020) and was 12.2 percent higher than in 2016. Marijuana figures aside, positivity for most drug categories declined or remained flat in the combined U.S. workforce over the past five years. The Quest Diagnostics Drug Testing Index findings were released to coincide with the National Drug & Alcohol Screening Association 2021 Annual Conference in St. Louis. 

“Driven largely by surging rates of marijuana, general U.S. workforce positives and steady rates of amphetamines positives, the rate of drug positivity remained stubbornly high despite seismic shifts to the workplace caused by the Covid-19 pandemic,” says Quest Diagnostics Senior Director of Science and Technology Barry Sample, Ph.D. “However, as we see upticks in hiring and many employees returning to the workplace, it is important that employers consider drug testing as a way to keep the workplace, their customers and the community safe.”

“Impairment, whether it be by drugs, alcohol, fatigue or stress, decreases the safety of the workforce,” adds National Safety Council Senior Director of Impairment Practice Jenny Burke. “The Drug Testing Index results, reflecting decreases in many drug categories, occurred in a unique year. Even though these are down, we must continue to educate people about the impairing impacts of these substances. And, as states and the federal government consider changes to the legality of marijuana, we can’t take for granted that they also understand the impairing impact of THC. The safety of people who share the roadways and workplaces with impaired people needs to be a priority.”

A series of reports, the Quest Diagnostics Drug Testing Index tracks trends in workforce drug use based on positivity rates of de-identified laboratory tests the company performs for a range of illicit, legal and prescription drugs. It examines test results according to three categories of workers: federally mandated, safety-sensitive workers, including truck drivers; the general workforce; and, the combined U.S. workforce. An interactive map with positivity rates and trend lines by three-digit United States zip code is posted here.

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