The US Workforce Is Taking More Drugs

By Kelly Burch 06/07/18

A new study about workplace drug testing found that opioid use declined between 2016 and 2017, while use of other drugs is on the rise.

employee clocking out of work

Members of the workforce in the United States are testing positive for drugs more often than they have in the past 10 years, according to a new study that analyzed more than 10 million drug test results. 

The study, conducted by Quest Diagnostics, painted an interesting picture of the ways that drug use is affecting different areas of the country. Overall, 4.2% of people drug tested at work tested positive, up from 3.5% in 2012, which was a 30-year low. 

“It’s unfortunate that we mark 30 years of the Drug-Free Workplace Act with clear evidence that drugs continue to invade the country’s workplaces. Not only have declines appeared to have bottomed out, but also in some drug classes and areas of the country drug positivity rates are increasing,” said Barry Sample, senior director of science and technology at Quest Diagnostics.

The data, perhaps unsurprisingly, showed that marijuana use is up in states that have legalized recreational use. It also indicated that use of cocaine and methamphetamine is on the rise. 

“These changing patterns and geographical variations may challenge the ability of employers to anticipate the ‘drug of choice’ for their workforce or where to best focus their drug prevention efforts to ensure a safe and healthy work environment,” Sample said. 

Cocaine use increased for the fifth year in a row. The jump was particularly sharp in Nebraska (which had a stunning 91% increase between 2016 and 2017), Idaho (88% increase) and Washington (31% increase).

Use of methamphetamine was up in midwest and southern states. Between 2013 and 2017 positive tests for methamphetamine positivity increased 167% in the region covering Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin; 160% in the region covering Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee; 150% in the region covering New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania; and 140% in the region covering the eastern seaboard from Delaware to Florida.

The number of people testing positive for opioids declined 17% between 2016 and 2017, suggesting that efforts to address the opioid epidemic have been paying off. 

“The depth of our large-scale analysis supports the possibility that efforts by policymakers, employers, and the medical community to decrease the availability of opioid prescriptions and curtail the opioid crisis is working to reduce their use, at least among the working public,” said Kim Samano, scientific director at Quest Diagnostics.

Matt Nieman, general counsel at the Institute for a Drug-Free Workplace said that the opioid numbers were encouraging, but there was still work to be done. 

“The 10-year high in positivity rates—spurred by nationwide surges in cocaine and methamphetamine positivity as well as double-digit marijuana spikes in states with newly implemented recreational laws—serves as a stark warning that efforts to prevent substance abuse in the workplace are as important today as ever,” he said. 

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.