Drug Testing in the Workplace

PUBLISHED: Tuesday, December 12, 2023

While the concept of drug testing in the workplace has existed for decades, it still remains a controversial issue for many businesses. Employers claim that they have the right to test employees for illegal drugs. In contrast, employees insist that workplace drug testing is a violation of their right to privacy, which is guaranteed by laws in their respective states.

Why do companies test employees for drugs?

In today’s work setting, alertness and quick reflexes are generally required. Impairment to these qualities can cause injuries and interfere with work efficiency.

According to several independent studies, drug use can affect one's judgment, decrease reaction time, and predispose employees to risk-taking behavior. Other issues related to illicit drug use include:

  • Lost productivity
  • Absenteeism
  • Injuries
  • Fatalities
  • Violence
  • Theft
  • Low employee morale

Increase in health care, legal liabilities and workers' compensation costs

  • Prevent employees from abusing alcohol and drugs
  • Prevent hiring individuals who use illegal drugs
  • To identify and refer employees who have drug and/or alcohol problems
  • Provide a safe workplace for employees
  • Comply with state laws or federal regulations
  • Benefit from insurance providers’ workers’ compensation premium discount programs

However, employers who have drug-testing programs shouldn't rush to testing employees just because they seem to be under the influence of alcohol or illicit drugs. Some of the physical symptoms associated with intoxication such as disorientation, slurred speech, or a lack of coordination can also be a result of a medical condition.

What companies require drug testing?

By law, most private employers are not required to institute drug testing. It is, however, mandatory for companies in some industries like safety, defense, transit, healthcare and aviation to test certain applicants and employees for drug and alcohol use.

Applicants and employees of federal, state, and county agencies may be required to take drug tests as well. Basically, workers whose jobs carry a great deal of risk to themselves or to others are required to submit to drug screening.

Database: The Definitive List of Companies that Drug Test

When are drug tests administered?

Pre-Employment Drug Testing

Private employers may require new hires and applicants to pass drug tests during the employment screening process. Individuals can refuse drug testing, but doing so may mean giving up the job offer.

Different laws apply in each state regarding pre-employment drug testing. In some states, drug tests are subject to personal health information laws, allowing a person to limit the amount of information that should be relayed to the employers. Some states have imposed restrictions on pre-employment drug testing.

Random Drug Testing

In this type of testing, employees are put in a lottery-like testing pool and are randomly selected for random drug testing at any time. Employees are given little to no advanced notice before drug testing, thus discouraging employee drug use.

For Cause Drug Testing

Additionally, in some states, an employer may direct a specific existing employee to submit to drug testing. In most cases however, the company must have reasonable suspicion or a legitimate reason without discrimination, based on logic and facts, to believe that that employee has been taking drugs before he can be tested. Employers can require employees to undergo a drug test if the company believes they are under the influence of drugs or alcohol on the job, during lunch break, or even at home, if unexcused absences, tardiness, or low performance may appear to be because of alcohol or drug abuse.

Post-Accident Drug Testing 

Federal law allows employers to test for drugs during accident investigations. While state laws vary in different states, it is also legal for employers to test for drugs after a workplace accident has occurred.

Drugs that employers look for in drug tests and why

Each individual reacts and retains drugs in their system differently so knowing the detection times for certain drugs is important to both patients and health care practitioners to ensure accurate results.


Meth, Speed, Crank, Ecstasy

Used as treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), amphetamine is a stimulant to the central nervous system, affecting chemicals in the brain and nerves that contribute to hyperactivity. The prototypical stimulant amphetamines are amphetamine and methamphetamine and are widely abused.

Addiction to amphetamine can lead to serious detrimental effects which can be dangerous anywhere including in workplaces.

  • Physical effects: chest pain, heart failure, convulsions
  • Mental effects: paranoia, hostility, aggressiveness and violence

Identifying Amphetamines abuse

Amphetamine use can be determined through blood, saliva, urine and hair drug tests. In blood, it can be detected within 12 hours of use, within 3 days in saliva test, 1-4 days in urinalysis, and up to 90 days in hair tests. 


Cannabinoids, Marijuana, Hash

THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is a compound obtained from the cannabis or marijuana plant. When smoked or orally administered, it often produces euphoric effects.

THC in the bloodstream can lead to impaired short-term memory and slowed learning. Users may also experience transient episodes of anxiety and confusion. Heavy and long-term use can result in behavioral disorders which are detrimental for the workplace.

Identifying THC abuse

There are many ways to determine cannabis use, namely urinalysis, hair analysis, blood, and saliva testing.

How Long Before THC Leaves the Body

  • For urine drug tests, THC will appear as a positive within 1-3 days or up to 15-50 days of use, depending on usage.
  • Hair analysis is not always considered accurate because THC will not always stay in the hair follicle, but THC will appear for 7 days after use and most hair drug tests will test for a 90-day period.
  • In blood testing, the compound is detectable in the blood from 1-3 days up to 1-2 weeks depending on the frequency of usage. This test is used less frequently since it is invasive and difficult to administer, and it’s typically done for investigations of accidents and DUIs.
  • In saliva testing, THC will test positive within one hour of use, but marijuana can stay in the system for about 12-24 hours after last use. Surface contamination such as cannabis smoke can cause a false reading in a sweat patch test, which is why this test not commonly used.


Coke, crack

Considered to be one of the most abused drugs in the Unites States, cocaine was considered a useful topical anesthetic and its non-prescriptive use was ruled illegal by the Harrison Act of 1914.

Cocaine is administered through “snorting,” injected intravenously, or smoked in pipe as “crack” (cocaine’s very pure base).

Abuse and addiction of cocaine can cause a euphoric feeling that eventually turns into paranoia, depression, habituation, and other dysfunctions, creating societal consequences.


Identifying Cocaine abuse

The initial screening cutoff level for cocaine is 300ng/ml. It can be determined in the urine in 48-72 hours after dosage. In saliva testing, it can be detected within 1 day, and within up to 90 days in hair testing.


Heroin, Opium, Codeine, Morphine

Derived from the exudate of the opium poppy, opiates have been used to relieve pain for centuries. The principal alkaloid in opium is morphine. During the civil war, heroin, a very potent opioid, was synthesized for use resulting in the addiction of many soldiers.

Today, abuse of this drug is extensive. Effects of opium abuse include analgesia (the inability to feel pain), drowsiness (nodding), respiratory depression, extreme mood swings, and decreased gastrointestinal motility.


Identifying Opium abuse

An immunoassay biochemical test can detect morphine and codeine. A saliva test is considered reliable in detecting opiates, however, it will only be able to detect heroin for the first 5 hours after the last dose.

Heroin is a particularly fast-acting drug with a very short half-life, meaning that it leaves the body in a very short amount of time. Blood tests will be effective only within 6 hours of use, on average. Urine tests can work for 2-7 days after the last use and are commonly used.


PCP, angel dust

Characterized as a dissociative drug and hallucinogen, phencyclidine is relatively cheap and often concentrated in selected socioeconomic groups. PCP was used as an intravenous anaesthetic but had been discontinued for medical use because of its side effects. PCP can be harmful to any workplace as users of phencyclidine often exhibit depression, difficulties with speech and learning, and memory and weight loss issues. High doses of PCP can lead to a drop blood pressure, pulse rate, and respiration.

Identifying Phencyclidine abuse

Blood, saliva, urine, and hair tests can identify the presence of phencyclidine in the human body. Blood test can work for 1-3 days after post consumption. Saliva testing can identify PCP usage with the past 3 days. Urinalysis can detect PCP for 3-7 days, and a hair text can detect PCP for up to 90 days.

The different types of drug tests that employers use for drug screening

Urine Drug Tests

This is the most common type of drug test that employers use. Urine drug testing is the least expensive drug-testing method and it can be done at home by parents for $7-$50. This minimally intrusive method of testing can detect the use of a specific substance within the past week and even longer for those who are regular drug users. The results can be affected when the person being tested abstain from use for a period of time prior to the test. Urine tests are also often temperature tested to ensure the integrity of the sample.

Difference Between a 5-Panel and 10-Panel Urine Drug Test

The main difference is the number of drugs that are tested for in the urine.

5-Panel Urine Drug Test

  1. Cocaine
  2. Marijuana
  3. PCP (Phencyclidine)
  4. Amphetamines (including methamphetamines, also known as crystal meth)
  5. Opiates (including heroin, codeine and morphine)

10-Panel Urine Drug Test

  1. Cocaine
  2. Marijuana
  3. PCP
  4. Amphetamines
  5. Opiates
  6. Benzodiazepines (such as Xanax)
  7. Barbiturates
  8. Methadone
  9. Propoxyphene
  10. Methaqualone (Quaaludes)

The US federal government and the US Department of Transportation (DOT) use 5-panel drug testing as the standard. For high-level safety jobs or for employees working in industries involving heavy machinery, a 10-panel drug test or more may be required.

Blood Drug Tests

The most expensive and most intrusive method of drug testing, the blood test, consists of the analysis of a blood sample extracted from a vein in the arm or hand with a needle or through finger prick.

Blood testing for drugs is considered to deliver the most accurate results as compared to other drug testing methods. However, blood tests are not commonly used due to cost, its invasiveness, required equipment, and the long waiting time to get results.


Hair Drug Tests

The most expensive and most intrusive method of drug testing, the blood test, consists of the analysis of a blood sample extracted from a vein in the arm or hand with a needle or through finger prick.

Blood testing for drugs is considered to deliver the most accurate results as compared to other drug testing methods. However, blood tests are not commonly used due to cost, its invasiveness, required equipment, and the long waiting time to get results.

Saliva Drug Screens

This non-invasive method of drug testing is becoming more common. It can easily be administered but might sometimes require lab processing for accurate results.

Compared to other methods, it can detect more recent use, and the window for detection is typically 24-48 hours.

Workplace Drug Testing Issues

With companies implementing drug testing on employees, several issues arise in terms of legal and ethical aspects on the rights of employees and whether or not their privacy is being invaded.

Drug testing itself does not violate an individual’s right, however, the manner of how the tests are being processed or how the results are being used can be questionable.

Invasion of Privacy

Any individual can feel an invasion of privacy when they are being watched while urinating as some employers would require ensuring that the specimen is not being tampered with.

Thus, many courts have coerced other safeguards to protect against specimen tampering like listening to an employee urinate without actually watching.

Likewise, a positive drug test result may not be used in criminal cases without the consent of the employee, as held by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Drug-Free Workplace Act and State Laws

Confusion may surface with different states carrying different laws on employee drug testing. For instance, while 29 states have passed laws that allow the medicinal use of marijuana by patients as recommended by their physicians, employers in those states are not required to accommodate users of medical marijuana. In fact, an employer may have the right to fire an employee even for legal marijuana use.

Also, certain employers, such as transportation companies, must abide by federal regulations that require drug testing because the government does not recognize the legitimacy of medical marijuana.

Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988

Some Federal contractors and all Federal grantees are required to agree that they will provide drug-free workplaces as a precondition of receiving a contract or grant from a Federal agency.

The following is a brief sampling:

  • California - Employers that are awarded state contracts or grants must certify that they will provide a drug-free workplace, and a written policy to their employees must be provided.
  • Florida - State contracts are given to employers who impose a drug-free workplace policy. As a perk, contractors with drug-free workplace policies receive a discount on workers' compensation insurance premiums.
  • Illinois - There is no legislation concerning drug testing.
  • New York - While no legislation concerning drug testing is in place, random drug and alcohol testing of city bus drivers, police officers and corrections officers has been upheld by state courts.
  • Texas - Employers with more than 15 employees must adopt a workplace drug reduction policy of their own choosing.


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