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Drugs of abuse have become a major concern in the United States. The impact of drug use on the workplace is significant. In 2021, 57.5 million adults used illicit drugs and while marijuana remains the most used drug, a broad range of drugs continue to be used and abused across the country.i Today, more than ever, employers are facing the challenge of managing a workforce that is affected by drug use and consequently, at a higher risk of workplace accidents. Unfortunately, the widespread legalization of marijuana has contributed to a shifting trend among companies to reduce or eliminate drug testing in efforts to retain employees. The overall trend to move away from drug testing is cause for concern considering that the rate of positive drug tests results among America’s workforce in 2021 was the highest it has been since 2001. And while the overall positivity rate is concerning, perhaps more alarming is the increase in post-accident positive drug tests results of the general workforce, up 26% in the last five years.ii This article will address some important trends impacting the workplace with a focus on who is using drugs, what drugs are being used, and whether they are working impaired.
Who Is Using Drugs?
Interestingly, drug use in the workplace is not limited to any particular demographic nor industry. For instance, between 2017 and 2021, America’s general workforce experienced an increase in positivity rates in nearly all 17 major industries.iii However, while drug use affects employees of all ages and at all levels of an organization, some groups are more likely to use drugs than others. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) is published yearly and is the most detailed report on substance use in the United States. The 2021 report included data on people’s experiences with using illicit drugs and demographics, such as employment status. Survey results show that young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 are more likely to use drugs than any other age group, followed by adults aged 26 or older. Among young adults between the ages of 18 and 25, 2 in 3 who used illicit drugs in the past year reported being employed part-time or full-time. Among adults aged 26 or older, 3 in 5 who used illicit drugs in the past year also reported being employed part-time or full-time.iv
It goes without saying that with more than 50% of the workforce admittingly using drugs and positivity rates at a two-decade all-time high, the implications for workplace safety are dangerous and costly. Furthermore, the 2022 annual Drug Testing Index (DTI) from Quest Diagnostics highlights the direct impact that increased drug use has on workplace safety. The report points out that positivity rates among safety-sensitive workers—the individuals responsible for ensuring public safety—saw a rise after a 5-year steady decline in several drug categories. The report further addresses the negative impact of increased drug use among safety-sensitive employees by citing an increase of 41.9% in post-accident positivity rates since 2017.v
What Drugs Are People Using?
According to the NSDUH, the most commonly used illicit drug is marijuana. In 2021, among people aged 18 or older, 49.7 million used marijuana in the past year, and as many as 34.8 million used marijuana in the past month.vi Therefore, it is no surprise that the DTI reported the highest workplace positivity rates, among the drugs commonly tested, to be for marijuana. According to data collected from over 6 million urine tests, the positivity rates for marijuana use in the U.S. workforce have increased steadily, with the latest figures showing an 8.3% increase from the previous year. This is the highest positivity rate ever recorded in the DTI. Over the course of 5 years, the positivity rate for marijuana use among the U.S. workforce has gone up by 50%.vii
Relative to marijuana, the NSDUH data on the use of other illicit drugs, like misused prescription pain relievers, hallucinogens, cocaine, and other stimulants, is significantly lower within the general population. However, the DTI does offer additional insights into workforce trends regarding several drugs. For instance, amphetamines/methamphetamines are the second most detected drugs in the U.S. workforce. Other leading drugs, specifically, benzodiazepines, misused prescription pain relievers, and cocaine are also detected at similar rates. In addition, the DTI reports the construction industry as having the highest positivity rates for cocaine and methamphetamine use. However, the retail trade industry has the highest overall positivity rate and is the only industry to experience a rise in methamphetamine positivity rates year-over-year, with an increase of 55.6% since 2017. viii
Are People Working Impaired?
While drug use is a concern in and of itself, the real question for employers is whether their employees are impaired and what effect is the impairment having on the employee, the company and the customer? The effects of drugs on an individual's ability to work can vary depending on the substance used, the amount consumed, when the drug was used, and the individual's tolerance. However, even small amounts of drugs can impair an individual's judgment, coordination, and reaction time.
While employers might be keen on foregoing employee drug testing to attract more workers, in doing so, they increase the likelihood of drug-related impairment that may lead to mistakes, negative employee interactions, theft of company property as well as on-the-job accidents that endanger not only their employees but also the public at large.
Remember a positive drug test does not prove impairment, it does identify that drugs were present in an individual at the time of testing.
The latest annual reports on substance abuse and drug testing reveal negative trends that continue to underscore the growing problem of drug abuse and its impact on the workplace. By and large, marijuana continues to be the most common illicit drug used in this country with the highest positivity rates among employees. However, positivity rates for other drugs of abuse continue to increase throughout the general and federally mandated, safety-sensitive workforces alike, which makes this not only a pervasive issue but a problem of grave concern in this country. The information presented in this article emphasizes a need for employers to continue addressing drug abuse trends in the workplace and reassess their drug-free workplace policies.
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i National Survey on Drug Use and Health. SAMHSA. December 2022. https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/reports/rpt39443/2021NSDUHFFRRev010323.pdf
ii 2022 Annual Report and Industry Insights. Drug Testing Index™ and Industry Insights. A comprehensive analysis of workforce drug use trends. Quest Diagnostics. 2022.
iv National Survey on Drug Use and Health. SAMHSA. December 2022. https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/reports/rpt39443/2021NSDUHFFRRev010323.pdf
v 2022 Annual Report and Industry Insights. Drug Testing Index™ and Industry Insights. A comprehensive analysis of workforce drug use trends. Quest Diagnostics. 2022.
vi National Survey on Drug Use and Health. SAMHSA. December 2022. https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/reports/rpt39443/2021NSDUHFFRRev010323.pdf
vii 2022 Annual Report and Industry Insights. Drug Testing Index™ and Industry Insights. A comprehensive analysis of workforce drug use trends. Quest Diagnostics. 2022.