Employee Drug Use Marches Upward

Depressing news today for compliance officers worried about health and safety risks: drug use among the American workforce is at a 12-year high, across all types of workers and all types of drugs.

So says Quest Diagnostics, the blood-testing firm that publishes its annual Drug Testing Index. Yes, the absolute percentage of workers snorting cocaine, smoking weed, or taking methamphetamines still hovers around 4 to 5 percent—but the relative increase year over year is rising quickly. Some statistics:

  • Overall positive results from urine-based drug tests in 2016 was 4.2 percent, up from 4 percent in 2015 and the highest rate since 2004;
  • Positive cocaine tests rose from 0.25 percent in 2015 to 0.28 percent in 2016—which may sound small, but in relative terms, that’s a 12 percent rise in one year;
  • Positive cocaine tests also rose for workers in federally declared “safety sensitive jobs” from 0.26 percent to 0.28 percent;
  • Marijuana use (where saliva-based tests can measure recent use) has soared from 5.1 percent in 2013 to 8.9 percent in 2016—a spike of 75 percent;
  • Methamphetamine use (also measured with saliva tests) jumped from 0.24 percent in 2013 to 0.42 percent in 2016, another spike of 75 percent.

The only mildly good news is that use of prescription opiates has fallen among American workers, from 0.96 percent in 2012 to 0.69 percent last year. But that may well be due to tighter drug control laws for opiate abuse or higher unemployment among opioid addicts, rather than America quitting its pill habit.

And don’t die of shock here, but marijuana use is more prevalent in states where it’s legal. In Colorado, for example, positive test results in Denver-area zip codes are now above 3 percent, and are at 2.5 percent statewide. Four years ago those numbers were 2 percent and 1.7 percent, respectively. It’s much the same story for my home state of Massachusetts (although apparently we’ve been smoking dope at above average levels for years) and California.

Overall, drug use is most prevalent in the Southeast, the Kentucky-Indiana border, upper Wisconsin, and rural Oregon.

Quest does have a nifty interactive state-by-state map, where you can study drug use by zip code, year, and drug if you like. Worth a look.

Drug Use & Compliance Officers

For some portion of compliance officers, the implications for this report may not be all that much. If you have a smaller workforce, well-educated and in professions where federal safety standards aren’t a pressing concern (we don’t all operate forklifts, after all), then the health & safety risks to your organization are less. They aren’t zero, but they’re less.

For anyone working in manufacturing, heavy industry, pharmaceuticals, transportation, and related fields, however—this report is alarming. It may fuel conversations with your HR and internal audit directors, to reassess your exposure to workplace safety risks or drug-testing policies. It might lead to new policies, or if you have a unionized workforce, to negotiations over any performance standards you may want to strengthen or change.

Higher rates of drug use also foretell higher rates of workplace discipline, although if your policies are clear and well-enforced, discipline over drug violations may be more of the HR’s chore than yours. And the need to feed a drug habit certainly qualifies as pressure on an employee, so you may face higher employee fraud risks as well.

I suspect that compliance officers working in regions with higher rates of drug abuse, or in industries where drug use can’t be tolerated, already know the immediate threats like the ones above. At a higher level, the Quest report just casts a glum spotlight on U.S. workforce development overall. Any number of articles have spotlighted businesses that want to expand manufacturing employment in this country, but they can’t—because they can’t find enough employees able to pass a drug test. (Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ new policy for tough prosecution of drug crimes won’t help workforce development either.)

The Quest report helps us to quantify the problem, and the quantity is large. It also reminds us that the human dimensions of corporate ethics, compliance, and risk management can sometimes be heartbreaking. These numbers are.

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