Positive drug tests among US workers hit two-decade high

Fewer employers tested applicants for marijuana last year than in 2020 as companies grappled with nationwide labor shortages

The percentage of working Americans testing positive for drugs hit a two-decade high last year, driven by an increase in positive marijuana tests, as businesses might have loosened screening policies amid nationwide labor shortages.

Of the more than six million general workforce urine tests that Quest Diagnostics Inc., one of the country’s largest drug-testing laboratories, screened for marijuana last year, 3.9% came back positive, an increase of more than 8% from 2020, according to Quest’s annual drug-testing index.

marijuana leaf

FILE: A mature marijuana plant flowers under artificial lights prior to harvest at Loving Kindness Farms in Los Angeles on May 8, 2020.  (AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)

That figure is up 50% since 2017. Since then, the number of states that legalized marijuana for recreational use grew to 18 from eight, plus the District of Columbia.

Despite the increase in positivity last year, fewer companies tested their employees for THC, the substance in marijuana primarily responsible for its effects, than in recent years, said Barry Sample, Quest’s senior science consultant.

man smoking marijuana

A man smoking marijuana.  (iStock)

The shifting legal backdrop and changing cultural attitudes have prompted some employers to stop testing for marijuana while companies in some states are barred from factoring the test results into hiring decisions, according to Dr. Sample. And those trends accelerated last year amid the recent shortage of workers, especially in states where recreational marijuana is legal, Dr. Sample added.


"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.

A customer makes a medical marijuana purchase at a dispensary in Oakland, California. (REUTERS/Robert Galbraith)

The percentage of specimens tested for THC declined 6.7% nationwide in 2021 from 2020, while that figure fell by 10.3% in states where recreational marijuana is legal, according to Quest’s data.


"We certainly heard from some of our employer customers that they were having difficulty finding qualified workers to pass the drug test," Dr. Sample said of pre-employment tests for THC, especially in states where the use of the drug is legal.

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