A growing number of people in Northern California are failing drug tests required by their employers, prompting some local companies to rethink their drug-free workplace policies in an age of legal marijuana.
The number of drug detections are relatively small, but the statistics indicate more people are using cannabis following voters’ decision last year to legalize its recreational use in California.
Marijuana was detected in about 3 percent of workplace drug tests taken last year across coastal Northern California, about 1.5 times the national average, according to data from Quest Diagnostics, one of the nation’s largest clinical lab companies.
Overall, use of illicit drugs in the American workforce last year reached its highest level in 12 years, Quest reported, based on its analysis of more than 10 million workforce drug tests.
In Northern California, the nation’s largest marijuana-producing region, employers are increasingly re-examining their discretionary drug-testing policies as companies struggle to fill open positions in a tight labor market.
“Marijuana lasts for up to 30 days in your system, so how do you distinguish between off-duty use versus on-duty use?” said Valorie Bader, a Santa Rosa attorney who specializes in employment law.
Drug tests aren’t required for the majority of the U.S. workforce, but many companies opt to screen job applicants before they start work.
Just over 5 percent of the roughly 10,000 tests administered last year to the North Coast workforce detected a drug, up from 4.38 percent in 2012, according to Quest Diagnostics. The region incorporates the coastal area from Marin to Humboldt counties.
Most tests, about 70 percent, were administered as pre-employment screens and the remaining 30 percent were random, on-the-job tests, mostly required by federal and state safety laws for jobs like driving a bus.
Marijuana was the most common drug detected, found at a rate of about 3.36 percent, up from 2.38 percent in 2012, according to Quest data.
Amphetamines came next, which include legal prescriptions like Adderall, and were found in 0.69 percent of tests. Methamphetamine, which is mostly used illicitly and rarely prescribed, was found in 0.35 percent of tests. Opiates were detected in about 0.58 percent of tests.
“California has been higher for marijuana than the national average for many years,” said Dr. Barry Sample, senior director of science and technology for Quest.
Sample noted that some positive results detect lawful prescription drug use. California employers are under no obligation to make accommodations for medical marijuana use.
Drug tests are widely accepted as reliable when it comes to substances like alcohol or methamphetamine. But for marijuana, there are limits to what a result says about cannabis use.
A positive marijuana result simply indicates that someone has used marijuana, Sample said. But the tests — including urine, blood and saliva methods — are not yet sophisticated enough to reveal when, how often or how much, according to Sample.
“It took a long time for there to be consensus on impairment with alcohol,” Barry said. “The well-controlled and documented studies for marijuana are in their infancy.”
Cannabis use is becoming more socially acceptable across the United States, where 44 states allow some level of medical marijuana use, according to Americans For Safe Access, a national nonprofit advocating for medical marijuana use and research. California was the first state to pass medical marijuana laws two decades ago, and last year California voters legalized the recreational use of cannabis by adults.
North Coast drug test failures rising
Drugs were detected in 5.15 percent of urine tests conducted last year for employers on California’s North Coast, up from 4.38 percent in 2012.
3.36%: Marijuana metabolite
0.16%: Cocaine metabolite
5.15%: Total for all drugs
Note: Heroin and phencyclidine. Source: Quest Diagnostics.