Marijuana drug testing in the workplace

An Inside Look at the Fallacies of Workplace Drug Testing

Marijuana drug testing in the workplace


As the Director of Health & Safety for a large general contracting firm, I was recently charged with the task of reviewing and overhauling our company’s substance abuse policy. This included a close analysis of cost versus benefits, as well as practicality of testing for certain substances. It didn’t take long to figure out that the costs far outweighed the benefits.

For starters, I discovered that the purpose for most work related substance abuse policies was not predicated on a genuine desire to eliminate drug abuse in the workplace, but rather a desire to lower workers compensation insurance premiums. Most large carriers offer discounts ranging from seven percent to 10 percent on premiums for employers with substance abuse policies certified by their respective state’s “State Workers Compensation Board”. Just about all programs are written with the intent of obtaining the blessing of state boards in order to qualify for premium discounts. The problem however is that these policies are rarely implemented or managed properly. State Boards require employers to adhere to the following drug testing regimen:

  • Pre-employment
  • Fitness for Duty
  • Suspicious Cause
  • Post-Accident

Pre-employment testing is pretty cut & dry. But what about “Fitness for Duty” testing? Most employers interpret this as “Random Testing”. However, a closer review of State requirements indicates that fit for duty testing is to be performed in conjunction with a larger policy that includes additional medical tests. In other words, employers are required to have a separate “Fitness for Duty” program which outlines all required tests employees must partake in (NOT JUST A DRUG TEST). I have yet to work for an employer that has such a program implemented. Instead they just randomly pick employees for drug testing with no real thought put into it.

That’s like saying “Hey lets gamble with over a thousand dollars of our company’s money for no real reason whatsoever with the possible outcome being that we might have to fire a perfectly good employee. Then we can spend even more money to hire a replacement, which, by the way is going to require yet another drug test”.

Makes sense, right?

Drug testing based on suspicion

Suspicious Cause: Just about all employers interpret this to mean that a mere suspicion is enough to warrant a drug test. Wrong again. State Boards require that suspicion to be confirmed by a minimum of two company employees, AND the employer must detail, in writing, the circumstances which formed the basis for such determination and provide a copy  to the employee in question.

Post-accident drug testing

This brings me to post accident testing. Most employers today require employees to take a “Post Accident Drug Test” following even the slightest injury requiring only minor first aid treatment. Yet, State Boards only require post-accident drug tests for accidents resulting in lost time which would require the injured worker to be compensated for his time away from work. It is also interesting to note that insurance companies can deny compensation to an injured worker who tests positive for an illegal substance. However, simply testing positive isn’t enough to warrant such a denial. It must be shown that the employee was directly under the influence of said substance, AND, that that was the direct cause of the accident. Under no circumstances can they deny claims arising from medical expenses associated with the employees’ injury.

A recent report by the National Academy of Sciences “Committee on Drug use in the Workplace” makes an interesting point. Employer based drug testing policies are often referred to as Substance “Abuse” Programs. However, employers don’t draw a line of separation between substance abuse and substance “use”. And yet the original intent of substance abuse programs was to eliminate substance “Abuse” “IN” the workplace, not substance “Use” in an employee’s private life. Unfortunately the latter has become the norm today.

Sadly, my current employer was no different. We were spending on average around $150.00 per five-panel drug test, including GC/MS Diagnostic Confirmation and MRO review. Substances identified for testing included the following:

  • Marijuana
  • Cocaine
  • Opiates
  • Amphetamines
  • Phencyclidine (PCP)

My first thought was “Who the hell does PCP anymore”? But I digress.

Shocking results

A review of our recent drug testing history revealed some interesting stats. Over a 10 year period, roughly 3,500 drug tests had been performed for various reasons. Among those, only 26 yielded positive results, all of which were generated from random tests, and not a single one tested positive for anything  other than, you guessed it…..marijuana.

Proponents of work place drug testing, along with the drug testing industry just love to tell us how substance abuse in the work place cost employers hundreds of billions of dollars in lost productivity each year. Personally I could care less what the combined cost is amongst every…..single….employer spread across 50 states. I care what the cost is to ONE employer….mine. And, my employer’s data reveals a stark contrast to the national statistics. In 10 years we spent $525,000 to identify 26 employees who used marijuana at some point within a 30 day period prior to the tests. Do the math and that’s less than a one percent return on a half million dollar investment.  It is also worthy to note that, of the 26 employees who tested positive, NONE had any history of poor work performance, high absenteeism or tardiness. All were exemplary employees.

(A.D.D. moment….the drug testing industry reported $2.8 billion in sales for 2013).

Maintaining accurate safety data

Finally, part of my job as a safety professional is maintaining accurate work related illness and injury information. This data helps us to identify weaknesses in our safety program by performing root cause of analyses of accidents. We are also required to report injury data to OSHA every year. This in turn helps them identify any potential weaknesses in federal safety standards. It also helps the US Department of Labor in maintaining accurate injury and illness data for the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

You may be asking yourself what this has to do with drug testing in the work place. The short answer… A LOT!!

A recent study by the DOL revealed that approximately 60 percent of work related injuries go unreported by employees who fear reprisal if a post-accident drug test yields a positive result. And they should fear reprisal because 99.9 percent of the time that’s exactly what happens.

All too often employers use positive drug tests as a scapegoat to identify the cause of an accident. “He had an accident because he was high and therefore it’s his own fault”. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

In fact, this ends up putting more workers at risk because the actual root cause of the accident ends up being overlooked. In other words, the hole in the program goes unidentified. That isn’t to say that drugs and/or alcohol don’t play a role in some cases. But such a conclusion requires a thorough and objective investigation. And let’s face it, the drug testing industry isn’t known for its objectivity. A recent report by Bradford Health Services found that that 10-20 percent of work related fatality victims test positive for marijuana. However, the facts stop at test results. Nowhere does it state that the victims were actually under the influence of marijuana at the time the accident occurred. Common sense alone should tell you there would be ZERO proof that any of these victims were actually under the direct influence of marijuana at the time an accident took place. Let alone be able to prove that marijuana was the direct cause of the accident.

To put it bluntly, how do you tell if a dead person is high?

Don’t get me wrong, I am not opposed to drug or alcohol testing per se. I am however opposed to testing for marijuana. This position is based on science, not personal opinion towards moral arguments.  For starters, drug tests do not measure impairment. Secondly, they do not detect marijuana, but rather certain metabolites – by-products excreted by the body weeks after ingestion. Moreover, it may take several hours for these metabolites to appear in a person’s urine.

In essence, testing for marijuana does nothing more than prove personal use away from work…not “Impairment” “At” work.

4 thoughts on “An Inside Look at the Fallacies of Workplace Drug Testing”

  1. Man I just wanted to know what drugs they tested for pre employment and y’all got way off on another subject. Ugh

  2. Why then, do auto insurance companies have a zero-tolerance policy for businesses that require their employees drive company vehicles and rates skyrocket after a mandatory, post-accident DT if the driver in question only tested positive for marijuana. Is it simply because there is no test for impairment, only for the metabolites that stay in your system for weeks afterward? Or is there some underlying federal regulation? It seems to me that frequent users of any of the other drugs mentioned above would be a way bigger liability than marijuana users, but marijuana is discriminated against, soley due to the nature of the test?

  3. I believe recreational marijuana users susceptible to a random drug test should view their use as a financial risk and prepare accordingly. Have job offers lined up or network with professionals in your field until you’re comfortable that obtaining a position at another company is a certainty before risking use of marijuana. Have enough savings should your number be drawn from the hat, and understand that you won’t be receiving unemployment. Calculate the cost of relocating including selling a home (if relocation is necessary for employment ). And when you do use, do yourself a favor and don’t use marijuana every day. Don’t use it the night before a big meeting. And don’t use it the day before you have a college test or perform heart surgery!

  4. Ah the indignant piss collectors. How much of your half million was spent enriching Tennessee Congresswomen Diane Black? Her net worth is almost $29 million because of her husband’s stake in Aegis Sciences Corporation, a “…forensic chemical and drug-testing laboratory specializing in the Zero-Tolerance Drug Testing testing programs for businesses, professional and amateur sports drug testing, pain management physicians, and medical examiners”.

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