Thursday, June 4, 2015

Workers' Drug Use On the Rise

Publication Date 06/02/2015 The share of U.S. workers testing positive for drugs appears to be on the rise, according to data from millions of workplace drug tests administered by one of the nation's largest medical-screening laboratories. Traces of drugs--from marijuana to methamphetamine to prescription opiates--were found in 3.9% of the 9.1 million urine tests conducted for employers by Quest Diagnostics Inc. in 2014, up from 3.7% in 2013. While the numbers might seem small, they reflect the reversal of a longtime trend of declining drug use among workers. Before 2013, positives had dropped nearly every year for 24 years, from 13.6% in 1988 to a low of 3.5% in 2012. Some of the positive results are later discarded if a worker produces a doctor's prescription for a legal drug, but the majority reflect illicit use, driven by increases in marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine positives, said Dr. Barry Sample, director of science and technology for Quest's diagnostics employer solutions business. The upturn mirrors higher levels of substance use in the broader population, said Dr. Sample. A survey by the Department of Health and Human Services found that in 2013, 9.4% of Americans age 12 or older had used illicit drugs in the month before the survey interview was conducted, up from 9.2% in 2012 and 8.7% in 2011. Experts are unsure why drug usage is rising. Researchers haven't been able to conclusively link drug consumption to economic cycles. A 2013 paper from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, for example, concluded that "the Great Recession did not generate a clear temporary or permanent pattern in rates of substance abuse." Legalization of marijuana for medicinal and recreational use may explain some of the increase, said Mark de Bernardo, executive director of the Institute for a Drug-Free Workplace and a senior partner with management-side law firm Jackson Lewis PC. "We have a greater tolerance--and it's an unfounded tolerance--for illicit drug use," he said. The drug most commonly found in workers' samples is marijuana, which accounts for nearly half of all positive tests. Other common substances were amphetamines, oxycodones such as OxyContin, and benzodiazepines like Xanax. Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia have laws legalizing marijuana in some form. Colorado and Washington led the way in 2012, when voters approved initiatives allowing recreational use of the drug. Since then, employers have been managing a fast-moving and extremely uncertain legal landscape with drug-testing, said Jim Reidy, an attorney in the Manchester, NH office of law firm Sheehan Phinney Bass and Green PA. He has seen employers in Colorado and Washington adopt or expand testing policies, partly with the rationale that screening people out before they are hired puts firms in a less vulnerable position than firing marijuana users down the road--and possibly facing legal challenges based on the state laws. Quest's Dr. Sample noted that while test positives increased sharply in 2013 in Colorado and Washington relative to the rest of the country, in 2014 they were almost exactly in line with the national data. Use in those states may simply have "leveled off," he said. Workers in federally mandated safety-sensitive roles, such as truck drivers and pilots, are barred by federal law from using marijuana, even if it is legal where they live. Among those workers, who must undergo regular testing, Quest found that 1.7% of urine drug tests came back positive, flat with 2013. Dan Horvath, director of compliance at TransForce, Inc., a national staffing firm for truck drivers, said the company communicates regularly with drivers through safety meetings and mailers, reminding them that federal laws forbid them from smoking pot, even if their local governments allow it. "It's a lot more education material to drivers so they can't say they were not aware of testing rules." The overall Quest data reflect growing rates of some prescription drug use--and abuse. For example, even as use of many drugs has ebbed in recent years, positive tests for amphetamines, which includes prescription drugs such as Adderall, essentially doubled between 2008 and 2014. When tests show the presence of a prescription drug, the results are discarded if the individual can verify he or she was prescribed the medication by a doctor, said Dr. Sample, who added that independent studies show 65% to 80% of positive tests for legal drugs are ultimately disregarded for that reason. Employers are responding to the threat by screening for more prescription drugs. International Paper Co., a Memphis-based maker of paper and packaging, plans to add opiate derivatives like hydrocodone and oxycodone to its list. "It's preventative," said Kevin Mencke, chief counsel for employment and labor. "We're in manufacturing, so any drug abuse is a concern for us." At one location, the company experimented with using hair tests, which examine strands of hair and can detect drug use as far back as 90 days, compared with a few days or weeks for urine tests. International Paper's screening procedures found drug traces in about 1.4% of job candidates and 2% of employees tested randomly in 2014. Most employment-related drug tests are administered to job candidates, usually after an offer has been extended but before employment begins. More than half of all U.S. employers required tests for all post-offer job candidates in 2011, according to the most recent data available from the Society for Human Resource Management. In nearly all cases, employers decline to hire candidates with a verified positive result, said Mr. Reidy. Source: Dow Jones News Service By Lauren Weber