College and University Blog

Drug Testing - Does It Deter Drug Use?

There is a chance that when you graduate and go out into the working world, you will be required to take a drug test. Testing employees or job candidates for drug use is perfectly legal. It is illegal to fire an employee or reject an applicant for discriminatory reasons, like race, age, or gender, but singling someone out because of drug use is not a discriminatory act.

The main reason for the increase in drug testing is one of basic economics. Drug use and abuse is a problem too expensive to ignore. The government estimates that companies lose $82 billion in productivity each year because of substance abuse. More than three-quarters of the estimated 15 million drug users in the United States have jobs. A typical “recreational” drug user in today’s workforce is 2.2 times more likely to request time off; 2.5 times more likely to have absences of eight days or more; three times more likely to be late for work; 3.6 times more likely to be injured or to cause injury; five times more likely to be involved in an accident off the job, thus affecting attendance and performance; five times more likely to file a worker’s compensation claim; seven times more likely to have wage garnishments; and are one-third less productive.

According to Quest Diagnostics, the largest drug testing laboratory, almost 6% of all employees randomly tested and 4% of job applicants fail drug tests. They say that technology is so refined that false positives almost never happen. Those that test positive for drugs tend to work in restaurants, bars, construction, food preparation, or transportation. Of course, they can be found in all industries. It’s interesting to note that in 1990 the federal government spent $11.7 million to test 29,000 of its employees. Of these, 153 tested positive for drugs. This amounts to a cost of $77,000 to detect each drug user.

Drug tests can provide results immediately or within a couple of days, depending on whether urine, hair or saliva samples are used. Urine and hair samples are sent to a laboratory and take two or three days to process. Saliva tests can be administered on the spot and show instant results. Most testing is a 10 panel test. This means that it screens for the presence of 10 different drugs: amphetamine and methamphetamine; barbiturate; benzodiazepine; marijuana; cocaine; methadone; methaqualone; codeine and morphine; phencyclidine hydrochloride (PCP); and propoxyphene hydrochloride. Some of these drugs have legitimate uses and can be prescribed. This information will be noted when a sample is given.

Labs that conduct drug testing have stringent requirements to prevent switching of samples or contamination. If a positive result is received, a gas chromatography/mass spectrometry test is usually done. This is the most sophisticated confirmation method available. These safeguards make faulty test results unlikely. Such safeguards make faulty test results virtually impossible.

Some workplaces use universal testing where everyone is tested – from the CEO down to the dock workers. This testing is usually perceived as fair since it is designed to apply equally to everyone. Under a random testing program, tests can be conducted without warning on a continuing basis. A benefit of random testing is that it acts as a deterrent. Another type of drug testing is “for-cause” testing. This testing is used on an as-needed basis when there is a reason to suspect substance abuse by an employee.

It should be noted that drug users often have ways of fooling drug tests – everything from herbal remedies to condoms full of someone else’s drug-free urine. I know many people who have thwarted drug tests by their employer.

One criticism of drug testing is that it violates the drug user’s privacy. Another common criticism is that drugs are often used during an employee’s off hours, when it can have little or no possible effect on their job performance. The residual mental effects of a weekend joint, for example, are about as powerful as those of a Saturday night beer – none at all. The biggest criticism is that alcohol isn’t usually tested for at all. This is especially striking because irresponsible drinking is by far the biggest drug problem affecting the workplace. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, alcohol is the most widely abused drug among working adults. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) notes that alcohol accounts for 86% of the costs imposed on businesses by drug abuse.