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The Evolution of Drug Testing in the Workplace

Feb. 11, 2019
The opioid crisis coupled with rapid marijuana legalization is continuously bringing substance abuse policy revisions to the forefront.

With more than 30 states allowing the medicinal use of marijuana and 10 allowing fully recreational, it’s no surprise that employers are scrambling for ways to adapt to changing regulations. Coupled with the opioid epidemic, the intricacies of an effective drug testing program and policy can vary based on the industry and state.

The answer might be as simple as a no-tolerance policy for some employers, but for others the legalities are difficult to navigate.

“As companies consider strategies to protect their workplaces, they should also consider the risks that employees who use drugs present to their co-workers, customers and the general public,” says Kimberly Samano, PhD, scientific director, Quest Diagnostics.

Testing Positive

Data from Quest Diagnostics shows drug use by the U.S. workforce increased each year—and by double-digits over two years between 2015 and 2017, in five of 16 major U.S. industry sectors analyzed.

Despite efforts to regulate opioid prescriptions, the number of overdoses continues to climb. New opioid users prefer heroin over prescription drugs such as hydrocodone and oxycodone. This is due in large part to widespread accessibility, according to a study by Washington University researchers Theodore Cicero and Matthew Ellis.

“Our data document that, as the most commonly prescribed opioids—hydrocodone and oxycodone—became less accessible due to supply-side interventions, the use of heroin as an initiating opioid has grown at an alarming rate,” they report. “Given that opioid novices have limited tolerance to opioids, a slight imprecision in dosing inherent in heroin use is likely to be an important factor contributing to the growth in heroin-related overdose fatalities in recent years.”

While substance abuse has sharply risen over the past decade, the market for drug testing is also showing “significant” growth, according to Allied Market Research.

The global drug abuse situation has been driven by factors such as rise in availability of prohibited drugs and “drastic” lifestyle changes among the millennial population.

The research firm sees technological advancements in body analyzers and a rise in focus on raising awareness above the adverse effects of drugs boosting substance abuse testing among employers worldwide.

However, the firm also notes employers show a lack of awareness about the availability of advanced drug testing devices as well as concerns about breaking medical privacy laws when it comes to mitigating substance abuse among their workforce.

Marijuana Legalization

Marijuana currently is legal in more than 30 states for medicinal use, with other states expected to follow.

Recreational marijuana use became legal in Michigan in December 2018.

James E. Baiers, chief legal officer for Trion Solutions Inc., which manages human resources administration for small- to mid-size businesses in the state, recommends employers constantly assess their drug policies for clear communication to ensure that workers accurately informed.

“The new law legalizing marijuana in Michigan does not supplant or override an employer’s policy to maintain a drug-free workplace – and does not prohibit an employer from disciplining or terminating an employee for violating its drug policy,” Baiers explains. “In fact, some businesses are required to maintain a drug-free workplace – such as those in transportation; operating heavy equipment and machinery; and recipients of federal contracts or federal grants.”

Michigan’s new law, however, does not require employers to make accommodations for workers who have a medical marijuana prescription.

Craig A. Vanderburg, chief operating officer, Trion Solutions, echoes the importance of a clearly spelled-out policy.

“How it all falls out remains to be seen, but the most important advice now is to ensure company policies are clearly described and carefully communicated to all job candidates and employees,” he says. 

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