Drug Test Positivity Rate for U.S. Workforce Hits 2-Decade High

Marijuana is driving the increase in positive tests, as companies grapple with labor shortage and changing marijuana legalities.

March 31, 2022

Marijuana Drug Testing

SECAUCUS, N.J.—The positivity rate for drug tests is up by more than 30% in the combined U.S. workforce from an all-time low in 2010-2012, reaching its highest rate last year since 2001, according to Quest Diagnostics Drug Testing Index.

The combined U.S. workforce includes the general U.S. workforce of mostly company required tests by private employers as well as the federally mandated, safety-sensitive workforce.

The overall positivity rate in the combined U.S. workforce, based on nearly nine million urine drug tests, was up to 4.6% in 2021 compared to 4.4% in 2020, and up 31.4% from the all-time low of 3.5% 10 years ago (2010-2012).

Overall positivity in the federally mandated, safety-sensitive workforce stayed even year over year at 2.2% but has risen 4.8% since 2017. In the general U.S. workforce, positivity increased 1.8% to 5.6% in 2021 and was 12% higher than in 2017 and up each of the last five years.

Positivity rates for marijuana in the general U.S. workforce continued an upward climb, increasing 8.3% to a 3.9% positivity rate in 2021—the highest positivity rate ever reported in Quest’s index. Over five years, positivity for marijuana in the general U.S. workforce increased 50%. Marijuana positivity rates for the federally mandated, safety-sensitive workforce increased 8.9% to 0.86% in 2021.

Over the last five years, the post-accident positivity rate was 9.7% in 2021 for the general workforce, an increase of 26% over the last five years. In the federally mandated, safety-sensitive workforce, the post-accident positivity rate was 4.4%, which increased 41.9% over the last five years.

"Our Drug Testing Index reveals several notable trends, such as increased drug positivity rates in the safety-sensitive workforce, including those performing public safety and national security jobs, as well as higher rates of positivity in individuals tested after on-the-job accidents," said Barry Sample, PhD, senior science consultant for Quest Diagnostics.

Businesses may have relaxed drug screening policies due to labor shortages, especially for marijuana, reports the Wall Street Journal. Over the past five years, states that legalized recreational marijuana grew from eight to 18, plus Washington, D.C.

There are fewer companies testing for marijuana than in recent years amid shifting legal status and changing cultural attitudes, Sample told the Journal, who added that some states are not allowed to factor marijuana test results into hiring decisions.

“We’ve been seeing year-over-year declines in those recreational-use states, but by far the largest drop we’ve ever seen was in 2021,” he said about the number of drug tests that screened for THC.

According to Chris Layden, senior vice president at staffing firm ManpowerGroup, not testing for marijuana is a common way for companies to expand their pool of eligible workers. ManpowerGroup estimated that drug testing eliminates about 5% of candidates. The company is seeing companies across nearly all industries, except for financial services and federally regulated businesses, eliminate marijuana testing requirements.

The struggle to find labor has some companies rethinking job qualifications, aside from nixing a drug test, as well as the types of incentives used to attract employees. Many companies are dropping education requirements and background checks for applicants, and some companies no longer requires college graduates to submit their grades.

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