The American workforce failed drug tests at the highest rate in nearly two decades last year, according to new data released this week.

That finding comes via Quest Diagnostics, one of the largest providers of drug tests, which said that 2019 was a 16 year high in workforce drug positivity. “Positivity rates in the combined U.S. workforce increased in urine drug tests, climbing to the highest level since 2003 (4.5%) and more than 28% percent higher than the thirty-year low of 3.5 percent recorded between 2010 and 2012,” Quest said in a press release on Tuesday. 

Notably, Quest said that last year saw “dramatic increases in positivity for cocaine and methamphetamine as well as marijuana.” Cannabis laws, of course, have changed considerably over the last decade on the local level, with a number of states and cities moving toward decriminalization or outright legalization. Medical marijuana, meanwhile, is legal in more than 30 states.

But pot remains banned on the federal level, and some employers continue to test for it. Barry Sample, PhD, senior director of science and technology, for Quest Diagnostics, said that marijuana “continues to be an enduring presence in the U.S. workforce.” 

“Changing attitudes toward its use could pose heightened risks especially in safety-sensitive positions and those states exploring legalization,” Sample said.

Marijuana and Other Drugs

Quest reported that cannabis “continues to top the list of the most commonly detected illicit substances across all workforce categories (general U.S. workforce; federally mandated, safety-sensitive workforce; and combined U.S. workforce, which includes the prior two populations) and specimen types (urine, oral fluid, and hair).”

“In the general U.S. workforce, marijuana positivity increased nearly 11 percent in urine testing (2.8% in 2018 versus 3.1% in 2019) and 29 percent since 2015 (2.4%). In the Midwest, marijuana positivity outpaced national increases in positivity in 2018 and 2019,” Quest said in its report. “Marijuana positivity increased in the Midwest by nearly 14 percent (2.9% in 2018 versus 3.3% in 2019). The West region also outpaced national positivity and saw double digit increases, as compared to the previous year, in 2017 through 2019. Marijuana positivity increased in the West by 24 percent (3.3% in 2018 versus 4.1% in 2019) and 78 percent since 2015 (2.3%).”

Quest said that “methamphetamine positivity in the general U.S. workforce testing increased nearly 12 percent (0.17% in 2015 versus 0.19% in 2019)” over the last five years, while, encouragingly, “positivity for opiates in urine drug testing continues to decline across all opiate categories.”

According to Quest, positivity rates for opiates dipped more than 19 percent from 2018 to 2019, and 49 percent since 2015. In the Midwest, positivity rates for meth “experienced year-over-year increases, driven primarily by double-digit increases in the East North Central region during this period.” Over the last five years, Quest said, the region has experienced a whopping 78 percent increase in meth positivity rates. 

“While the national debate on drug misuse in the workforce has focused primarily on marijuana, increasing positivity rates for cocaine and methamphetamine are also cause for concern,” said Sample. “Positivity by drug and region can be random and unpredictable. Our data is a reminder that it is important to remain vigilant about all drug misuse in the workforce.”

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