Public support for marijuana legalization is at a record high in the United States, but not everybody is embracing reform.
Certain industries have a financial interest in keeping weed illegal — private prisons, law enforcement, and Big Pharma, for example — but there’s another opponent to legalization that most people don’t think about: the drug-testing industry.
Against mounting evidence that drug testing is not cost effective, and that it unfairly targets marijuana users, the industry remains steadfast in its opposition to legalization.
The reason? The industry has a lot at stake. There are those who argue it has a conflict of interest in opposing legalization efforts and is ignoring the facts to justify its fat revenues.
In an effort to understand how and why many members of the drug-testing industry appear to be working against the marijuana legalization movement, ATTN: looked at federal lobbying records and talked to experts about the science and economics of drug testing.
The average cost of a drug test is $42, and the vast majority of people who submit to these screenings pass.
Quest Diagnostics, which offers drug testing services and has more than 25 years of data on results, found that just 4.7 percent of people tested positive for illicit drugs in 2014, a slight increase from 2013 (4.3 percent).
A little over half of those — or 2.4 percent — tested positive for marijuana, a substance that has been legalized for either medical or recreational purposes in 24 states.
“If you take marijuana out of the equation of the standard drugs that are screened for, you’re going to have a very, very small percentage of employees ever flunking drug tests,” Paul Armentano, the deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), told ATTN:
Marijuana is the most commonly used illegal substance in the U.S., so it makes sense that a majority of people who fail drug screens test positive for marijuana.
But there’s another factor at play that has led some to conclude that drug tests effectively discriminate against cannabis users: Marijuana stays in your system for significantly longer than other illicit drugs, as this chart from Business Insider shows.
Urine tests can’t determine whether a person is actively “high” on marijuana because they don’t detect the drug’s main, psychoactive ingredient THC.
Urine tests can only detect the byproduct, called carboxy-THC, which appears in urine after the body metabolizes THC.
In other words, drug screens don’t test for impairment; they simply detect the metabolites of drugs a person has recently used.
Because the metabolite of THC is fat soluble, however, it can be detected in urine for 30 days or more.
In contrast, the metabolites of other illegal drugs — cocaine, heroin, and meth, for example — are water soluble and are flushed out of the system in one to two days on average and are therefore undetectable on a urine test thereafter.
“Not only is urine testing for marijuana not an impairment test, testing positive for carboxy-THC on a urine screen is arguably evidence of non-impairment, because the test has established that enough time has elapsed so that the active drug has worn off, and a significant portion — if not all — of that active substance has been converted into something else that is inactive,” Armentano said
“Someone passing or failing a drug test has no bearing on whether or not they’re going to be impaired at the job two weeks later,” Williamson told ATTN:. “I think that’s a huge piece of the puzzle that I’m sure drug-testing companies don’t need or want to talk about, but that public institutions and private industry should be considering.”
DATIA keeps a list of 10 “myths” about marijuana on its website, including one that disputed the claim that “the marijuana ‘high’ only last for a few hours.”
To support that point, the association cited a 1985 study of airline pilots who used flight simulators after smoking a joint. “While impairment was proven 24 hours after usage, none of the pilots reported any awareness of their own impairment,” DATIA wrote. But a follow-up study conducted in 1989 found that the psychoactive effects wore off after one to four hours.
A central focus of the Marijuana Education Outreach Fund appears to concern employers’ rights to mandate drug testing, even in states that have legalized marijuana. Legalization advocates want states to restrict the ability of employers to penalize marijuana users in legal states. So far, no state-level legalization measures include such exemptions, Forbes reported.
The Institute for a Drug-Free Workplace, a nonprofit corporation based in Virginia, is another arm of the drug-testing industry that actively resists marijuana legalization at the state and federal level.
In an op-ed published in the National Law Review last year, Bernardo boasted about how workers in legal states have consistently failed to challenge employers’ rights to penalize medical marijuana patients for testing positive for THC.
It’s not just DATIA and the Institute for a Drug-Free Workplace. It’s virtually impossible to find any drug-testing industry associations that support marijuana legalization.
The drug-testing industry is out of step with the public on the issue of legalization, and some believe there’s an implicit conflict of interest when it comes to drug testing companies and marijuana reform.
In light of historic public support for legalization and mounting evidence that marijuana is relatively safe, non-addictive, and medically valuable, it seems odd that the drug-testing industry would focus so much of its energy and resources fighting legalization.
If drug tests can’t determine if a person is actively impaired, all they can tell employers is that an individual used the drug within the last month or so. Reform advocates think that’s reason enough to drop marijuana from drug-testing programs in legal states.
After all, millions of Americans manage to stay productive in the workplace even after consuming alcohol when they’re off the job
Employers shouldn’t have to tolerate workers who show up to the office drunk, nor should they have to make exceptions for employees who get high on the job. But requiring people to pee in a cup and punishing them for testing positive for marijuana doesn’t necessarily help employers achieve a drug-free workplace, legalization advocates said.
Because of continuing federal prohibition, the drug-testing industry is able to get away with making money off of getting otherwise productive people fired from their jobs just because they happen to enjoy marijuana at the end of the day, in the privacy of their own homes, in a way that doesn’t negatively impact their work,” Tom Angell, the founder of the Marijuana Majority, told ATTN:.
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