Driven by increases in cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana use, drug use by the American workforce remains at its highest rate in more than a decade, according to new research. Nationally, the positivity rate for the combined U.S. workforce held steady at 4.2 percent in 2017, the same as in 2016, but it is an increase over the 3.5 percent positivity rate from 2012, which represented a thirty-year low.


Quest Diagnostics’ analysis of 2017 data suggests shifting patterns of drug use—with cocaine and amphetamines positivity surging in some areas of the country and marijuana positivity rising sharply in states with newer recreational use statutes. On the other hand, prescription opiate positivity rates declined dramatically on a national basis.


The company’s Drug Testing Index examines test results for three categories of workers: federally-mandated, safety-sensitive workers; the general workforce; and the combined U.S. workforce. Federally-mandated, safety-sensitive workers include pilots, bus and truck drivers, and workers in nuclear power plants, for whom routine drug testing is mandated by the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.


“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,” says Dr. Barry Sample, senior director, science and technology, Quest Diagnostics. “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. 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.”


The good news is that, according to the firm’s analysis, efforts by policymakers, employers  and the medical community to decrease the availability of opioid prescriptions and curtail the opioid crisis appears to be working—at least among the working public. Indeed, nationally, the positivity rate for opiates in the general U.S. workforce in urine drug testing declined 17 percent.


That said, the positivity rate for cocaine increased for the fifth consecutive year in the general U.S. workforce across every specimen type. In urine testing, the most common drug test specimen type, the positivity rate for cocaine increased seven percent in the general U.S. workforce. In the federally-mandated, safety-sensitive workforce, for which only urine testing is permitted, cocaine positivity increased by 11 percent, representing the third consecutive year of increases in this workforce segment.


I was interested to learn that an analysis of trends in the general U.S. workforce show surging increases of methamphetamine positivity rates. Between 2013 and 2017, methamphetamine positivity increased: 167 percent in the East North Central division of the Midwest (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin); 160 percent in the East South Central division of the South (Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee); 150 percent in the Middle Atlantic division of the Northeast (New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania); and 140 percent in the South Atlantic division of the South (Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia).


Finally, perhaps not surprisingly, marijuana positivity is up in general, but especially in states with new legalization statutes. So, while nationally, marijuana positivity increased four percent in the general U.S. workforce and nearly eight percent in the safety-sensitive workforce, increases in positivity rates for marijuana in the general U.S. workforce were most striking in states which have enacted recreational use statues since 2016. Those states include: Nevada (43 percent), Massachusetts (14 percent) and California (11 percent). These three states also saw significant increases in marijuana positivity in federally-mandated, safety-sensitive workers: Nevada (39 percent), California (20 percent), and Massachusetts (11 percent). While it is too early to tell if this is a trend, Dr. Sample says the data suggests recreational use of marijuana is spilling into the workforce.


What are your thoughts on increased drug use by workers? Does your company conduct drug testing? If so, does it’s findings mirror those of this research?