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Drug Testing in the Workplace: Here's What You Need to Know
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Laura Berlinsky-Schine
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Many employers require potential employees and new hires to undergo drug testing as a condition of their employment. If potential employees "fail" pre-employment drug screening and have a positive result, they may not be hired.

In addition to pre-employment testing, many employers also conduct on-the-job screenings to deter drug abuse in and out of the workplace. Safety-sensitive positions especially may require drug testing.

If a prospective employer asks you to submit to a pre-employment drug test, a current employer performs random testing, or you're simply curious about how these tests work and what they're all about, read on for five important facts you should know.

What is drug testing?

Drug testing is a procedure used to identify illegal and prescription drugs in someone's system. Some organizations drug test potential employees and perform routine screenings. This is especially true of industries in which drugs may affect safety and performance.

Drug testing may also be used for legal purposes. For instance, in the case of a vehicular accident or fatality, drug testing may be performed to determine who was at fault. It may also be used in child custody cases to help determine an individual's fitness to parent. 

What are the rules governing employer drug testing?

For the most part, private employers may perform pre-employment drug screening and random testing of employees on an as-needed basis without much regulation from the government. However, some states do have laws regarding drug and alcohol testing, so if you're not sure about the laws in your state, it's best to consult an attorney.

Many government agencies do require pre-employment testing as well as routine alcohol and drug screening. In most cases, they follow strict guidelines governing protocol for administering and evaluating the tests, along with procedures for employee treatment programs and rules for returning to work after the employee completes a substance abuse treatment program.

In many cases, as with the U.S. Department of Transportation, this is a safety measure; since many employees are operating vehicles such as trains, airplane, and automobiles, they could put passengers and other people—as well as themselves—in danger if they are under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Which substances do drug tests identify?

The following drugs fall within the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) guidelines:

• Alcohol
• Amphetamines (meth, speed, crank, ecstasy)
• Cocaine (coke, crack)
• Opiates (heroin, opium, codeine, morphine)
• Phencyclidine (PCP, angel dust)
• THC (cannabinoids, marijuana, hash)

Employers may conduct further drug tests to identify other narcotics in your system. The 8-panel test identifies:

• Barbiturates (phenobarbital, butalbital, secobarbital, downers)
• Benzodiazepines (tranquilizers like Valium, Librium, Xanax)
• Methaqualone (Quaaludes)

The 10-panel test identifies the above drugs along with:

• Methadone
• Propoxyphene (Darvon compounds)

Your employer's drug testing program may also encompass additional drugs.

Prescription drug testing

You'll see that some of these panels include legal, prescription drugs in addition to illegal drugs. Many employees who use these drugs with a prescription are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

However, in some safety-sensitive positions, the employer may argue that even prescription drugs pose a risk.

If you are taking a prescription drug and your employer asks you to submit to a drug test, make sure you gather any related paperwork—the prescription, a letter from your doctor describing your need to take it, and anything else that supports your use of the medication—and show it to your employer. If you don't want to share these details, you are entitled to the protection of privacy as well.

Consult the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to discuss your options for recourse. In 2007, the EEOC initiated a lawsuit against an automotive parts manufacturer that suspended or fired several employees who tested positive for drugs for which they had valid prescriptions, resulting in a $750,000 settlement.

In which industries is drug testing most common?

Drug testing is especially common in industries where drug use can affect an employee's own or someone else's safety, as well as those that can affect an employee's ability to do her job. These industries include:

• Transportation

• Manufacturing

• Oilfield 

• Construction

• Sports

How do employers drug test?

A urine test, the most common form of drug testing in the workplace, shows the presence of drug metabolites in a person's system. They can remain in your system for a period of time. The test does not provide an indication of current use.

A breath-alcohol test is the most common test to detect the presence of alcohol in someone's system. It measures Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC). This test is preferred for alcohol because alcohol metabolizes so quickly.

Employers may also use alternative methods, such as hair analysis, which can provide a much longer window for detection. Hair analysis may detect drug use going back 90 days for some substances. It cannot detect alcohol use.

Below are the typical windows for detection of specific drugs using common drug testing methods according to the Drug & Alcohol Testing Industry Association:

Alcohol: 1 oz. for 1.5 hours
Amphetamines: 48 hours
Barbiturates: 2-10 days
Benzodiazepines: 2-3 weeks
Cocaine: 2-10 days
Heroin Metabolite: less than 1 day
Morphine: 2-3 days
LSD: 8 hours
Marijuana: 3-4 days (casual use); several weeks (chronic use)
Methamphetamine: 2-3 days
Methadone: 2-3 days
Phencyclidine (PCP): 1 week

Can you be fired for using marijuana?

Some states offer explicit employee protections for drug testing. Arizona, Delaware, and Minnesota prevent employers from refusing to hire or fire someone based solely on a positive drug test. Maine no longer legally allows employers from drug testing applicants or firing employees who are 21 or older and use marijuana outside of the workplace.

Other states, including Arkansas, Connecticut, Illinois, Nevada, New York, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island explicitly protect employees who are medical marijuana cardholders or participate in marijuana programs; in general, employers may not fire employees based on this state by state law.

Other states either have no laws protecting an employee against being hired or fired based marijuana use for medical purposes or recreational use or explicitly only provide criminal protections.

That means that depending on where you live—and even if marijuana use is legal in your state—your employer may still institute a drug testing program and may fire or refuse to hire you based on the results.

Note that individual state laws concerning drug tests and drug testing procedures do change, so if you have a question about your employer's drug testing policy, it's a good idea to consult an attorney in your state.

Can you refuse a drug test?

You can refuse a drug test, but you probably won't get or keep the job if you do. Other than the state and ADA laws described above, most employer drug testing is perfectly legal, and you won't have much recourse if you are denied a job or terminated because of your refusal to submit to a test.

There are many legitimate reasons for refusing a drug test, but you should carefully weigh the pros and cons of your decision since it will almost certainly affect your employment.

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