Drug Testing

The Puzzling Persistence of Pee Tests

With public support for legalizing marijuana at record levels, why do so many employers still try to screen out cannabis consumers?



Slate columnist Daniel Engber, who was recently "shocked" to discover that workplace drug testing is still a thing, wonders: What's up with that? He finds, as I did back in 2002, that there's little evidence drug testing is a sound investment for employers:

As was the case 30 years ago, testing has no solid base of evidence, no proof that it succeeds. We don't know if screening workers for recent drug use makes them more productive, lowers their risk of getting into accidents, or otherwise helps maintain the social order. And what positive effects we do understand—there are indeed a few—seem almost accidental. They may not be worth the time and money and intrusion.

In other words, the drug testing of employees isn't so much a thoughtful labor policy as a compulsive habit. It's something that we do because we've always done it, and we don't know how to stop. Testing has become a national addiction, and it may be time to taper off.

As I noted in my Reason feature story, surveys conducted by the American Management Association suggested there was some tapering off in the late 1990s. After rising from 21 percent in 1987 to 81 percent in 1996, the share of large employers that said they tested applicants, workers, or both fell to 67 percent in 2001. But it's not clear whether the practice is less common today than it was in 1997, when 49 percent of respondents in the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse said their employers required some kind of drug testing. As Engber notes, the corresponding number in the National Survey on Drug Use and Health for 2008 through 2010 averaged 48 percent. (Because of methodological changes, the two surveys' results are not directly comparable.) Then again, the testing industry still estimates that about 50 million tests are conducted in the United States each year, which suggests a decline in prevalence once you take population growth into account.

"This broad and retro culture of drug testing seems at odds with the growing disengagement from our long and painful War on Drugs," Engber writes. "States are legalizing marijuana, and its use is on the rise; politicians now evince broad support for undoing policies that filled our prisons with harmless drug offenders. Yet despite this shift in strategy and realignment of our values, the drug testing of employees—performed at great expense to both the public and private sectors—remains routine."

It seems clear that drug testing, which indicates recent use but does not measure impairment, would not be nearly as common without prohibition and the policies flowing from it, which encourage employers to treat illegal drug use differently from drinking, which they generally perceive as a problem only when it affects safety or productivity. Federal regulations mandate drug testing for certain "safety-sensitive jobs" and require government contractors to have "drug-free workplace" policies, which in practice involves taking an unseemly interest in employees' urine. More generally, processing pee is a way to signal responsible management and good corporate citizenship. Once a company starts doing it, fear of negative publicity, of attracting competitors' rejects, or of increased exposure to civil liability may discourage it from stopping.

Urinalysis enthusiasts often argue that pre-employment screening, given how easy it is to avoid a positive test result, identifies applicants who are too lazy, stupid, or addicted to abstain for the requisite period of time. But prohibition increases the perceived value of drug screening as a way of filtering out undesirable employees, since illegal drug users are lawbreakers by definition and may be nonconformist in other respects as well. So despite record public support for legalizing marijuana, it is not surprising that something like half of all jobs in the U.S. still require people to pee in a cup, a policy that mainly screens out cannabis consumers. Even in states that have legalized marijuana, continued federal prohibition makes continuing the ritual easier than renouncing it.

NEXT: Colorado Cannabis Credit Union Demands Access to the Federal Reserve System

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  1. Two things:

    (1) Pure inertia.

    (2) The plaintiff’s bar. If you have a workplace accident and somebody sues, your lack of drug testing will be held up as negligence by the employer.

    1. “Your school bus company/airline/interstate trucking company/etc doesn’t even test for drugs!!!!”

      /plaintiff’s lawyer to witness squirming on stand

      1. Actually, I’m pretty sure those are required by law to test, which is yet another reason why its still around.

        There are a surprising number of businesses with legally mandated piss testing.

        1. So, there just needs to be some legal, government, and insurance reforms. Pretty simple.

    2. That and insufficient racial profiling…

    3. #2 for the win. (Well, I guess it really is number 1.)

      It doesn’t have to make economic sense, it only has to make legal sense.

    4. Yeah, I just figured it was a CYA move, like employee “evaluations” that don’t do anything but generate paperwork (in reality, the boss just decides if you get a raise and how much and then backfills the forms to match up with what he decided).

      1. “in reality, the boss just decides if you get a raise and how much and then backfills the forms to match up with what he decided”

        This sounds like one of those things said by people that only know employee/employer relationships from television shows or leftist-newspapers. I manage people, but I don’t even have the ability to “decide” who gets a raise. In reality, I am more of an “agent” than a “boss”: I have to present a case for my assessment of my directs to other managers and executives, and that case very much rests on the content of the “forms” that I submit to them.

    5. (3) Most interactions with the federal government require drug testing. DOT, anyone? If you even look at cannabis as you drive past a grow op on the freeway, your CDL is yanked. Do you perform any work (and in some cases, even products sold to) for the feds? Or a lot of states? You need to have a comprehensive drug testing policy in place.

      A lot of small businesses, on the other hand, don’t bother with cannabis as long as their employees don’t show up impaired.

  2. I make a point of shopping elsewhere when I see that a business makes its employees grovel. The first thing I ask a politician is “Do you advocate testing people’s urine in support of prohibition?” I trust the LP will have a clear platform plank I can point to as an alternative.

    1. I haven’t seen a “we’re drug-free!” sign in many years. I think the last time was at a Blockbuster like in the 90s.

      1. Ha! Every one of my stoner friends worked at Blockbuster. It’s probably why they’re out of business…

        1. I always thought that was funny. I would have thought smoking weed was a positive qualification for working at a video rental store.

    2. I do support ending the war on drugs but I find the idea that drugs are harmless and employers to ignore it to be going a bridge to far. Getting rid of drug laws does not mean that I want to fly with a pilot on heroin or have a surgeon using speed, or have a military working party moving ammunition to be smoking crack

      1. Yes, in certain fields it makes sense. And it wouldn’t even require government intervention to be acceptable to both customers and workers. But in many fields it doesn’t make any sense and the only reason they do it is moral preening.

      2. Even there (except the military maybe, They can do what they want to you, I guess), it would make more sense if they stopped testing for weed and just test for things that are more likely to indicate likely impairment while at work. I really don’t care if any of those people like to get stoned in their spare time.

      3. Agreed. Society too frequently makes the error of “legal = good; illegal = bad.” Drugs should absolutely be legal, but that doesn’t mean that smoking crack is a good idea

        1. Knowing the difference between malum prohibitum and in se should be required to graduate high school.

      4. A huge problem is that there is no current, reliable test for intoxication by marijuana. Quite frankly, most people probably don’t give two shits if you smoke a bowl until you try and run a backhoe six minutes later.

        As an example, you can detect alcohol metabolites in urine for a day or two after you got plastered. But they don’t test for them, they test for the alcohol itself. Marijuana’s life cycle and variable effects on people make that hard to quantify (at least for now) – so they are left with their prohibition-era simple detection that has been used for a quarter century.

        Once a test for current intoxication makes its way out, I’ll bet we start seeing a relaxing of the business use of the current urine testing.

      5. Drugs aren’t harmless, but if someone isn’t high on the job and can function properly, I don’t see why it matters if someone takes them while they aren’t working. Especially for minor drugs like marijuana.

        You typically wouldn’t hear someone say that they wouldn’t want someone who drinks alcohol in their spare time to work for them, so why apply this logic to drugs? It’s possible for someone to go to work drunk, just as it is possible for someone to go to work high.

  3. It’s a moral thing. Drug users are immoral, so they must be excluded from gainful employment.

    1. You don’t really believe this, do you? The morality of drug use has become a non-issue in most places now.

      The real reason is LIABILITY. If an employee tests clean at a pre-employment screen and they have a policy of testing after any accident, that enables the employer to pass that liability along to the employee should they violate the company rules (or state law).

      Frankly, it’s a common-sense business practice to limit your liability. And I don’t blame any employer that does so within the framework of the current (idiotic) drug laws.

      1. You don’t really believe this, do you?

        Depends on who you ask. Some really do believe it. Heck, I work with several people who are strong supporters of the war on drug users for moral reasons. Drugs are bad, m’kay?

        1. I’m shocked to hear that, to be honest. I work for a company owned by the fucking Wilks Brothers. And while they drug test at time of employment and after accidents, there is no anti-drug culture here. In fact, it’s pretty well accepted that some of the best employees here smoke week on the regular, which is why they abolished random testing a few years ago. And they’ve never considered going back to it because “what somebody does on their own time is none of our business”.

          1. I work for a defense contractor and am surrounded by retired military officers. Without exception they are all drug warriors. They’d probably beat me to a bloody pulp if they knew I smoked weed.

            1. Oh, well they’ve been drug warriors through indoctrination. And they’re used to following whatever orders come their way. I think they’re public sector outliers.

          2. For context: http://www.reuters.com/article…..ZF20150911

        2. So do you work with Mormon teetotalers, or hypocrites?

          1. Oh, I see, military people who no doubt drink alcohol. So… hypocrites it is.

        3. I’ve repeatedly seen people argue against legalization because then no one will pass drug tests, you’ll have 50% unemployment and industry will all move out because they can’t get drug-free employees to work at Taco Bell.

          You know, like Colorado with their economic depression and failing property values.

          1. Colorado is actually suffering from legal marijuana. The economy isn’t booming, but housing is incredibly scarce from all of the people moving here to take part of the legal mary jane, which has driven gentrification issues into the Denver Metro area. It’s fast becoming impossible to find work that will pay the bills. Even if you manage to work at three different fast food joints you still can’t afford more than a nice ditch in most places in Denver Metro and the Northern Front Range.

            I hear, though I don’t keep my ear on it as much, that similar problems are facing Colorado Springs and the Western Slope.

            1. “housing is incredibly scarce from all of the people moving here to take part of the legal mary jane”

              Methinks you are confusing causation and correlation.

              In short: there’s no fucking way someone *moves* because they can smoke legal pot instead of getting it from a skateboarder down at the local park.

              I live in Washington State, and while housing ebbs and flows, it most certainly has not ebbed and flowed as a result of legalization of cannabis. Whatever factors are affecting housing in Denver, I’m sure they started long before legalization.

      2. AFAIK, it’s not even an employer thing, it’s an insurance company thing. It’s not the employer that wants to limit his liability, it’s the employer’s insurance company that wants to limit its liability. Like insurance companies that push for various safety mandates, it’s not that safety per se is a good thing, it’s anything that lowers their costs (even if it raises costs for everybody else) is a good thing. If drug testing keeps just one person from successfully getting a big fat check out of an employer’s insurance company over an employee accident, the insurance company doesn’t care how much it cost the employer to conduct drug testing.

  4. Private sector employers should be free to use whatever criteria they believe necessary for their staffing requirements.

    1. Even the government should be allowed to supervise what its own employees are using.

      Do you really want the guy in the military moving bombs around to be high on coke?

      Unless of course you are against all government then the point is mute

      1. Do you really want the guy in the military moving bombs around to be high on coke?

        Better than the “sins” of the idiots deciding where the guy is moving the bombs to so we can drop them on innocent civilians in Yemen.

      2. I believe that the government should have, with regard to employment practices, certain restrictions that I don’t believe should apply to the private sector.

      3. What kind of bombs.

        I think a distinction between employees and military personnel is called for here. Military service si a bit different from ordinary civilian employment. It’s kind of part of the deal that they get to control your life a lot more than they do civilian employees.

      4. The problem isn’t the drugs, it’s the behavior associated with them. If the guy can carry the bombs and perform his other duties effectively and without causing any trouble (doubtful, but possible), then there is no issue.

        But the biggest reason why the focus has been on drugs (besides people’s obsession with them) is that drug testing doesn’t open you up to liability (and, as pointed out above, not drug testing can be a bigger liability). As we all know, “you were an incompetent worker” is just code for insidious institutional racism, but the magical “scientific” drug test is not racist, so it’s okay.

        It’s the inevitable result of our modern therapeutic (never hurt anyone’s “feelings” except the bad people) and technocratic (cargo cult) society.

      5. Do you really want the guy in the military moving bombs around to be high on coke?

        Actually, I’m not even sure coke would be an impairment (unless he was really blitzed).

        Years ago when I was in Germany, the constructions workers and road crews would take beer breaks and knock back a pint before going back their power tools and heavy machinery. Doesn’t seem to have been a problem.

        Drug use =/= impairment.

      6. Do you really want the guy in the military moving bombs around to be high on coke?

        Why not, they already give them speed.

      7. Well, 5 million drunk Russians did a pretty good job overrunning Berlin.

      8. I wouldn’t want him drunk either – ‘drugs’ *and* alcohol are prohibited on ship, there’s already a statutory requirement to be sober for before reporting for duty, and most (naval) commands have a standing order that alcohol consumption must stop a minimum of 6 hours before reporting for duty – even if you’d be completely sober by the time you started work a single beer 4 hours prior is illegal for usthem.

        But Ecstasy, which has a faster sober up period and less degradation of your skills and perception will get you thrown out while being so puking drunk you can’t even make Quarters will net you NJP at the worst.

  5. law (USDOT)


    insurance (see above)

    and as Jacob points out, why would you want to hire someone who can’t pass a pre-employment drug test?

    1. I am not aware of any jobs in my hospital for which being able to deliver a false negative on a drug test is an actual job qualification.

      1. I would think than being smart enough to pass a test is a plus.

        1. Yes, I want to hire people who are smart enough to deliberately lie to me, doesn’t everyone?

          1. Exactly. Demonstrating a talent for evading policy and accountability is not on anyone’s list of professional competencies at my hospital.

    2. why would you want to hire someone who can’t pass a pre-employment drug test?

      Sort of like how the flaw in the trial-by-jury system is that the accused’s fate rests in the hands of 12 people too dumb to get out of jury duty.

  6. illegal drug users are lawbreakers by definition and may be nonconformist in other respects as well

    ^This. Nothing is worse than non-conformity.

    1. Brian: “You’re all individuals!”

      Crowd of followers: “Yes! We’re all individuals!”

      Lone voice: “I’m not.”

      1. OMG a million lunches in the college cafeteria circa 1990 just flashed before my eyes.

    2. If there’s one thing the non-conformist hates more than the conformist it’s the non-conformist that does not conform with the prevailing standard of non-conformity.

  7. I’m embarrassed to say that I complied with a piss test once, at Salomon Brothers, back in the late ’80s. I was at a client site, I had already spent the money on the ticket and getting into an apartment in NYC, and nobody had mentioned a piss test until the morning I showed up to start the gig. They all thought it was routine, and were surprised that I found it objectionable.

    Today, I have the money in the bank to tell them to fuck off, and demand a full reimbursement of my travel and other expenses.


    1. You were obviously never in the military….

      1. The military introduced me to reefer back in the sixties, though I understand alcohol is the thing now.

        1. Spice and its variants.

      2. The military doesn’t hide its drug testing. You’re made quite clear that you’ll be tested before acceptance, tested while waiting a report date, tested at MEPS, tested upon report to RTC, tested upon report to your first command, tested upon return from leave, tested at the CO’s whim, and be expected to perform at the random weekly to monthly urinalysis that every command you serve at will conduct for the duration of your service.

        You don’t show up to work one day and out-of-the-blue BM1 is telling you to piss in a bottle while another dude watches.

    2. Yes. I hope if I ever find myself asked to piss for someone I will be in a position to tell them to get fucked. Yeah, provate employers have a right to do it, but it’s terribly insulting, particularly in any skilled or professional field.

  8. We have preemployment screening at my place of employment along with the threat of random screening during employment. In 20 years I’ve never heard of anyone getting a random screening. The only time it has come into play is after an accident, a positive test being used to deny workman comp claims.

    1. We are the same here except we tend to see it a lot during lay off times. It’s funny how the guy the boss doesn’t like but can’t justify getting rid of gets pulled multiple times for random screening.

  9. HR officers have a urine fetish?

    1. That should be #3 on the list.

    2. Then why can’t R Kelly find work?

  10. “Urinalysis enthusiasts often argue that pre-employment screening, given how easy it is to avoid a positive test result, identifies applicants who are too lazy, stupid, or addicted to abstain for the requisite period of time.”

    Same as picking the guy who shows up in the appropriate clothing over the person who doesn’t. It says something about the applicant to both know and be willing to show up in the attire they are expected to.

    1. Racist!

    2. That’s probably true and somewhat valid. But assumes that the applicant is given adequate time to get everything out of their system.

      1. Or is capable and confident enough to cheat

    3. Same as picking the guy who shows up in the appropriate clothing over the person who doesn’t. It says something about the applicant to both know and be willing to show up in the attire they are expected to.

      Yes, it says that they care more about bullshitting you for a job than to be competent. I’ve found the sharpest dressers are either trying to hide their flaws or are executive-level (and so also trying to hide their flaws).

      If you can’t setup a competency test for the position you are hiring for, you shouldn’t be the one judging a potential hire for it. Go a level or two down and have your subordinates setup competency tests for them even if you are the hiring manager of record.

      1. Exactly. Can they depend on you to lie when necessary, or will you be the guy that spills the beans to the EPA?

  11. What’s up with that? He finds, as I did back in 2002, that there’s little evidence drug testing is a sound investment for employers:

    Hey, I think this may help our Slate columnist:

    Think of workplace drug testing like most municipal “environmental sustainability” programs. They look good, you get to check the box that you’re “doing something” to screen out bad stuff, but really has little to no payoff and may actually hurt the environment in the long run.

    1. Oh, and uh, the other problem is Modern HR departments.

  12. With public support for legalizing marijuana at record levels, why do so many employers still try to screen out cannabis consumers?

    Support for legalization is not the same thing as actual legalization. If an employer wants to screen out someone breaking the law (however stupid that law may be), that’s totally legitimate.

    1. I’m sure employers are SUPER CEREAL about not hiring “law breakers” which is why no one ever hired anyone who went over the speed limit in a car.

      *rolls eyes*

  13. While I support drug legalization, I don’t have a problem with employee drug tests. If I owned a factory or company, I’d want to run them to protect my employees and reduce liability. It’s common sense.

    1. Except for the fact that if I have a prescription for Oxy-Codone, I can go work in your factory and be a greater threat than the fellow smoking Marijuana.

      Do you support testing for Marijuana? Or do you simply want workers that use no drugs at all.

      1. If you take any prescription drugs and tell them beforehand, they will take that into account when processing the results.

    2. It’s common sense.

      Impairment testing would be common sense.

      Testing for what your employee may have done over the last three days, weeks, or months, is stupid.

  14. Drug testing is a Joke. Most people don’t take drugs and the test is a waste on them.
    People that take drugs like Cocaine/Heroin can just hold out for two days and score negative.
    People that smoke marijuana usually sneak in someone else’s urine and score negative.

    This test only screens out drug users that are either super un-aware of getting around this or honest people.

  15. I remember seeing a news item many years ago about a company that stopped using piss tests and instead subjected employees in positions where working impaired would be dangerous (e.g. forklift operators) to a simple test that involved playing a video game. If you were too impaired to play the game you had to take the day off; it didn’t matter if the reason was the cold medicine you were taking or something else. Obviously if you have to take too many days off then your job would be in jeopardy.

    I don’t know how well this approach works scientifically, but I like the overarching view: the only thing the employer truly needs to know is if you can safely and competently do your job.

    1. While I generally agree with the sentiment of your comment, I have to take issue with this statement:

      I don’t know how well this approach works scientifically

      None of this is scientific. The piss test is not scientific. Medicine and related fields are not scientific. All medical tests and diagnostic actions in practice have nonzero false positive and/or false negative rates. Basing any definitive conclusions on the results is not scientific. Of course, you can’t be “95% fired” or something similar, so it may be “reasonable” to assume that a positive piss test is valid and fire the person accordingly. But that doesn’t make it scientific.

      1. I see your point.

      2. I think the “scientific” part is that if you can’t pass the test that actually tests your ability to do the job you shouldn’t be doing the job and it doesn’t matter whether it’s because you smoked some dope, took an allergy pill, are sleepy from being up half the night rescuing puppies from burning buildings or are just an idiot. If the Home Depot forklift driver drops a pallet of shingles on your head you can argue all you want that it was the marijuana in his system that caused it but it could very well be the guy’s just a moron and would have dropped them on your head even if he hadn’t smoked half a joint three days ago. Put the guy on the forklift simulator before you put him on the real forklift and if he drops a simulated pallet of shingles on a simulated customer’s head he doesn’t get to drive the forklift and it doesn’t matter why he failed the test.

    2. Indeed, Sandwich, that’s what I refer to as impairment testing. Its the only kind of testing that makes sense in theory.

      How good it is in practice, I have no idea.

  16. You answered your own question as to why employers, including the federal government and many state governments, screen prospective employees using urine testing. First of all, they are detecting not only cannabis use, but opioid and cocaine use as well. Cannabis is still illegal under federal law and state laws legalizing pot do not protect employers from liability. That is a huge reason right there. In many states, impaired driving laws certainly include cannabis. Secondly, there are at most 15 million habitual cannabis users which is only 10% of the workforce. Detecting and preventing these users from entering your work force is thought worthwhile by many employers since it shows these employees cannot stop using long enough to even pass the urine testing. That means they are more than occasional users and cannabis has a long half life in the body fat deposits. I for one would expect my airline pilot, bus driver, doctor, dentist or lawyer, for starters, to be drug free and not impaired while on the job. Let’s face it – cannabis is used precisely because it impairs judgment and causes euphoria through chemical action on the brain.

  17. Why do they drug test? Because some time in the 1980’s an employee at a plastics factory went to work high and though it would be fun to stick his arm into a film rolling machine.

    He sued the company for NOT having a drug testing program, for NOT catching his drug use and firing him before his own stupidity nearly killed him. He won the lawsuit. Of course it was in California. Judges in most other places would have told the idiot he was an idiot and solely responsible for injuring himself.

    Having a drug testing program protects the employer against lawsuits from drug addicts who injure themselves or others. If they get clean enough to pass the test, well, the company had the test and it proves that the *drug user* was willfully negligent in causing the injuries.

    Scamming the drug test proves you’re sound enough in mind to know that using drugs on the job is a bad thing, then going ahead and using on the job is definitely knowingly engaging in dangerous behavior. No pleading reduced competency and putting the onus on the employer to fire your dope ass.

  18. My employer of 2 years never asked about drug testing. He’s a committed lefty too. I do think it occurred to him, but his thought (I think) is this: if you do recreational drugs, no problem. Just do your job and I don’t care about your private life. I admire him immensely for this.

  19. Drug tests do a good job of screening out potential employees who are unwilling to put up with humiliating invasions of privacy.
    I have never taken a drug test and have turned down offers from several employers that wanted me to submit to drug tests.

  20. Hi, Jacob. Your readers might also be interested in this report from the ACLU:


    This report, although slightly dated, basically reiterates the case against pre-employment screening. It provides lots of details on why these screenings are a vast waste of money and in my view proves the hypothesis that the drug testing industry is but a house of cards. They offer little value at great cost and businesses will wake up to this eventually.

    Happy new year,

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