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​​Labor shortages could be contributing to American workers testing positive for drugs at the highest rate in decades

April 4, 2022, 10:11 PM UTC

Working Americans tested positive for drugs last year at the highest rate in more than two decades, mostly due to an increase in positive marijuana tests, according to research from Quest Diagnostics, the Wall Street Journal reported. 

Of the more than six million workforce urine tests administered by Quest last year, 3.9% were positive for marijuana, up from 2.7% in 2019 and 2% in 2016, according to the Journal

Overall, the percentage of working Americans who tested positive for drugs rose to 4.6% in 2021, the highest it’s been since 2001, according to Quest’s annual drug-testing index.

“Our Drug Testing Index reveals several notable trends, such as increased drug positivity rates in the safety-sensitive workforce, including those performing public safety and national security jobs, as well as higher rates of positivity in individuals tested after on-the-job accidents,” Barry Sample, senior science consultant at Quest, wrote in a statement

That trend could be fueled by  pandemic-induced labor shortages, as many employers are desperate for workers, and lowering barriers to entry. 

“Employers are wrestling with significant recruitment and retention challenges as well as with maintaining safe and engaging work environments that foster positive mental and physical wellbeing,” Keith Ward, general manager and vice president of Quest Diagnostics Employer Solutions, said in a statement. 

In Michigan, where marijuana has been legal since 2018, many companies in the auto manufacturing industry have lowered barriers to employment since the pandemic began because of labor shortages, including no longer testing for THC, according to the Journal. 

The number of states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use has grown to 18 (plus Washington D.C.), up from just eight states in 2017. In the years since then, the proportion of workers testing positive for marijuana has risen 50%, according to Quest.

The cannabis industry was one of the biggest beneficiaries of the pandemic, as many “vice industries” like alcohol and weed exploded. The increasingly mainstream nature of marijuana use has even prompted fewer companies to test their employees for THC—the main psychoactive compound in marijuana, according to Sample.

The research from Quest also revealed that positive results for cocaine use in federally mandated safety- and safety-sensitive jobs, which includes pilots, bus and truck drivers, and workers in nuclear power plants, increased 5.0% in 2021 over 2020, the first increase in five years. Overall though, cocaine use among the general workforce decreased in 2021.

Positivity rates for opiates in the general U.S. workforce decreased 3% in 2021 over 2020 and 37.3% over five years. 

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