Emerging Issues in Security

Does Workplace Drug Testing Need a New Approach?

The federal standard for employee drug testing includes these drugs of abuse: cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamine, Ecstasy, alcohol, opiates, and PCP. According to the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, while the numbers of employees who test positive for prescription and illegal drugs and alcohol while at work stays about the same at 4 to 6 percent per year, public and private-sector firms are now dealing with surges in the use of marijuana and opiates by their employees.

failed drug test

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The continuing trend of decriminalizing marijuana use and possession laws has now passed in over 22 states. Employers can still prohibit marijuana use and possession while at work, but marijuana use advocates like the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (www.NORML.org) continue to say that marijuana use and being under the influence are completely different events. For employers and police, the problem is there is no national standard for marijuana impairment, like the .08 national standard for blood alcohol. Groups like NORML say until we can measure marijuana impairment that affects an employee with a desk job or a driver who uses pot on a Friday and comes to work on Monday, seemingly sober, the debate as to the freedom to use it in their personal lives will continue.

And while employers still have the right to randomly test their safety-sensitive employees (truck drivers, bus drivers, pilots, train operators, and others who hold commercial motor vehicle licenses), they can only test other employees on a post-accident or reasonable suspicion basis. Since safety-sensitive employees know they could be disciplined, removed from their safety-sensitive position, or terminated for a positive drug or alcohol test, they are usually more concerned for the consequences of prescribed drugs, street narcotics, or alcohol. Do other employees who can only be tested on a postaccident or reasonable suspicion basis feel it is unlikely they will ever be caught in a positive drug or alcohol test, so they use drugs with more impunity?

The California Narcotics Officers Association (www.cnoa.org) uses an acronym they call SHOCADIDs to train police officers in recognizing drug and alcohol symptoms in the field. This collection of legal and illegal drugs and alcohol covers the majority of substances used by people, and as such, potentially by employees as well. Note however, which SHOCADIDs drugs are tested for in the workplace and which are not: Stimulants (only cocaine and meth, not attention deficit disorder (ADD) drugs like Ritalin or Adderall); Hallucinogens (only Ecstasy, not LSD or mushrooms); Opiates (yes, including heroin and prescription pain narcotics); Cannabis (yes, both marijuana and hashish); Alcohol (yes); Depressants (no, including anti-anxiety and antidepression medications); Inhalant (no, paint, solvents); and Dissociative anesthetics (yes, PCP only).

From this list, alcohol, opiate drugs, and marijuana use in the workplace tends to be the most popular for employees in general. Certain professionals like construction, manufacturing, and trucking, tend to over-represent for the prevalence of methamphetamine use. Those industries should continue their use of drug testing and policy enforcement.

While some companies in legal marijuana-use states continue to test for all drugs as a condition of new employment, others have stopped testing at all. Said one Colorado ski shop operator, “If I didn’t hire every employee who tests positive for marijuana here, I’d be working alone.” As such, some employers are asking their legal counsel and HR departments to discuss the need to eliminate preemployment drug testing, and only using it as a tool for postaccident and reasonable suspicion situations.