Why Are So Many Workers Failing Drug Tests Today?

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As a recruiter, your job is to find the best candidate for a position. On the surface, it’s a simple process: match the responsibilities and qualifications in a job ad with the person who can fill the role. The puzzle pieces should fit together neatly!

In reality, however, the process isn’t always that simple. Even if a candidate meets all the criteria on paper and sails through the interview process, other obstacles — often unexpected — can arise.

One obstacle in particular is complicating the hiring process for many employers in the market today. While companies can find qualified applicants for just about any job, many of those individuals can’t pass a standard drug test.

Historically, drug tests were afterthoughts, final hoops through which the candidate would effortlessly jump. Now, however, these hoops have become the highest hurdles.

What happened, and what can recruiters and employers do?

Facing an Epidemic

One reasons why many potential employees are failing their drug tests is the growing opioid epidemic, an unfortunate state of affairs impacting people from all walks of life, wealthy and poor, rural and urban. Indeed, the problem is so pervasive that Quest Diagnostics is reporting the highest rate of failed employment drug tests in 12 years. Opioids are a key player, but “cocaine, methamphetamine, [and] marijuana have all shown increases across every testing category and nearly every specimen type,” Barry Sample, a senior science and technology director at Quest, told Healthline.

While addictions can compromise safety in any workplace, opioid addiction is particularly dangerous for those who perform physical labor or operate heavy machinery. Under the influence of opioids, an employee operating heavy machinery may inadvertently cause serious injury to themselves or others.

What to Do About Marijuana

The other major player in failed drug tests is marijuana. Unlike opioids, which have FDA approval only for medical use, marijuana exists in a gray area.

At the present moment, 28 states have authorized the use of medical marijuana. Eight states and the District of Columbia have approved recreational marijuana for people 21 years of age and older. On the federal level, however, marijuana is still completely illegal.

Medicinal MarijuanaThe contrast between state and federal laws can cause problems for employees and candidates. A zero-tolerance policy in a workplace located in a state where medical and/or recreational marijuana is legal can lead to workers being fired or losing job opportunities for engaging in legal conduct outside of work.

One state seeing the effects of marijuana legalization on recruitment and hiring is Maine. As in other states facing similar circumstances, employers have largely responded by testing more, not less. Some employers in Maine have begun to focus on “impairment recognition,” which tests for signs of impairment rather than traces of previous marijuana use. Still, many employers continue to rely on traditional drug tests, which raises an important question: Is an individual who isn’t intoxicated during the workday — whose performance is not impaired — actually a danger? While some employers and lawmakers wrestle with the question, others feel it’s not their job to figure it out.

Struggles and Solutions

What are recruiters and hiring managers to do about rising rates of drug test failure? Impairment recognition is certainly one solution for employers, particularly in states where marijuana is legal to some degree. Another solution may be to offer appropriate training and support for potential hires who may lack skills but come up clean on drug tests.

One solution that may be surprising: hiring refugees. Some employers have found that refugees are less likely to use illicit substances than citizens are. Many refugees are also highly skilled, responsible, and reliable.

In many ways, employers are at the mercy of both the legal system and public health practices that advocate abstinence rather than treatment for people struggling with addiction. Companies suffering from talent shortages should consider working with local authorities toward better solutions to community drug use. The only other options — downsizing or relocating — are certainly less tenable in the long term.

Larry Alton is an independent business consultant specializing in tech, social media trends, business, and entrepreneurship. Follow him on Twitter  and LinkedIn.

By Larry Alton