Drug Testing at the Workplace

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Employers have an understandable interest in maximizing the performance of employees. Many are concerned that drug users may work less efficiently, have more accidents, or use more medical benefits. Other employers may favor hiring abstainers because of moral objections to drug use. Over 80% of major U.S. firms test for drugs, spending millions of dollars in the process.

Opponents of employee drug testing view it as a degrading experience that qualifies as an illegal search and seizure. They also argue from a more utilitarian perspective that the costs of testing outweigh the benefits.

Studies of cannabis users in the workplace may help answer some relevant questions about efficiency, accidents, and medical benefits. Few data address the efficiency of marijuana smokers at their jobs. One study reports they earn higher wages (Kaestner, 1991). Intoxication on the job would likely impair performance, though some workers report improved manual labor after smoking (Carter, 1980). In fact, very few people actually use illicit drugs at work. Any residual effects from marijuana consumption off-duty appear slight to nonexistent (Normand, Lempert, & O'Brien, 1994). A study of accidents in post office employees found no differences between drug users and nonusers (Zwerling, Ryan, & Orav, 1990). This absence of an effect likely stems from the infrequency of drug consumption at work. Marijuana appears to have no impact on health benefits, either. A study of a large group of HMO patients in California's Kaiser Permanente program compared medical costs of users and nonusers and found no differences (Polen, 1993).

Given these limited benefits of identifying marijuana smokers, the costs of drug testing may only appear worthwhile to those with a strong moral opposition to cannabis. A study of the federal government's $11.7 million drug testing program examined the efficiency of the procedure. Given the large number of abstainers and the price of the tests, identifying


a single drug user cost $77,000. Proponents of the program argue that the tests deter drug use in employees, but the rate of positive tests parallels the reported rates of drug use in the nation. Thus, government workers use illicit drugs at the same rate as others, suggesting that the tests do not deter consumption.

In addition to their direct cost, drug tests decrease productivity because employees are not working while providing hair or urine samples. Data suggest that computer firms with drug testing programs actually score lower on productivity measures than comparable firms that do not test for drugs. The impact on employee morale can also be particularly negative. Some companies have dropped preemployment drug testing because it impaired their ability to hire qualified applicants. Alternatives to drug testing include many money-saving strategies that lack the degradation often associated with drug tests. Most approaches focus on employee performance rather than drug consumption. Jobholders whose work needs improvement receive appropriate feedback and employee assistance. Individuals in positions that require optimum performance to ensure safety can complete brief cognitive tests prior to the beginning of work. Supervisors can send impaired workers home whether their deficits stem from intoxication, fatigue, or illness (Maltby, 1999).

Many people dislike drug testing in the workplace and take extreme steps to undermine its efficacy. A small industry has developed in reaction to widespread drug testing. This industry sells products designed to enhance the chances of testing negative despite drug use. A number of shampoos purportedly mask drug use for the hair test. Data suggest that they may decrease concentrations of cannabis metabolites in hair, but a single administration will not bring them to undetectable levels (Rohrich, Zorntlein, Potsch, Skopp, & Becker, 2000). Several compounds added to urine may create false negatives, but laboratories now test for them. Drug lore suggests false negatives increase with the ingestion of various herbs, cranberry juice, vinegar, mineral oil, lemon juice, or diuretics. These approaches also have no empirical support, except for effusive urban legends (Coombs & West, 1991).

A few legends about drug testing are based in fact. Drinking huge amounts of water likely lowers the concentration of metabolites in the urine. The first urine of the day may contain more metabolites than those given at other times. Scheduling tests for later in the day may increase the chances of false negatives. Otherwise, long periods of abstinence are


the only guarantee of a negative drug test. The numerous products and extensive clinical lore designed to combat drug testing reveals a negative attitude toward this indirect side effect of current attitudes and policies.

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