Learn / Navigating Pre-Employment Drug Screening: Identifying the Substances Tested

Navigating Pre-Employment Drug Screening: Identifying the Substances Tested

Sarah Shawaker
 April 12th, 2024|   Clinically Reviewed by 
Dr. Malasri Chaudhery-Malgeri, Ph.D.

Key Points

  • Drug testing verifies if you are using substances that affect job performance.
  • Marijuana, cocaine, opioids, benzodiazepines,
  • Drug tests are at employers' discretion.

A pre-employment drug test verifies if you are using illegal substances. These drug tests help employers understand if you are using any substances that may interfere with your ability to work. 

Although the legalization status of substances can vary across regions, such as marijuana, the test results can be used at the employer’s discretion. Drug tests can also be conducted at random, post-injury, if medications were used during recovery, with reasonable suspicion, or periodically during employment.

Commonly Screened Substances

Employers may test for various substances depending on the line of work, the location, the job role, and other factors. Commonly screened substances include, but are not limited to:

  1. Marijuana
  2. Cocaine
  3. Opioids (including heroin, morphine, codeine, and oxycodone)
  4. Amphetamines (including methamphetamine and MDMA)
  5. Benzodiazepines
  6. Alcohol
  7. Phencyclidine (PCP)

Detection Methods

Depending on the substances and desired time period of detection, employers have a few testing methods to choose from1

  1. Urine testing is the most common method that detects recent use of drugs. You will pee into a small cup and give it to a worker for testing. A urine test can typically detect substances used in the past few days.
  2. Hair testing can detect drug use over longer periods of time. A small hair sample is taken from the crown of the head or the armpit and must be at least 1.5 inches long. This method can detect drug use up to 90 days prior. 
  3. Blood testing is an accurate drug detection approach; however, it is costly and more invasive. A clinician uses an IV to draw a small amount of blood, and the test detects substances used in the past couple of hours or days. 
  4. Saliva testing uses a swab to collect a sample inside your mouth. This method detects drug use in the past 48 hours.

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Factors Affecting Detection

Test results can be unique to each person’s circumstances, including factors such as:

  1. Frequency and amount of substance use: A chronic daily user will likely have the substance readily detected. An occasional user may be harder to detect, depending on the test.
  2. Metabolism and body composition: Your metabolic rate can influence how quickly drugs are processed and eliminated from your body2. Age, gender, genetic makeup, and overall health play significant roles in metabolism speed. For example, someone with a slower metabolism will take longer to eradicate substances.
  3. Sensitivity of testing methods: Different testing methods have varying sensitivities and detection windows. The cutoff levels (the minimum amount of drug residue required for a test to be considered positive) also vary by test. They can affect whether a result is positive or negative.
  4. Time elapsed since substance use: Depending on the test, if substance use is more than two weeks prior to the test, most methods will not detect it; however, hair testing can detect drug use for months.

Legal Implications

Employers must comply with federal and state drug test regulations, which can vary by region. 

In most cases, employers must give reasonable notice before the test and obtain the employee’s or job applicant’s consent. Drug testing policies must be fair to all employees or candidates to avoid discrimination. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects individuals with disabilities who must take medication for their condition.

In some regions, laws and regulations may limit the actions employers can take in response to a positive drug test, particularly for substances like marijuana, where legality varies by jurisdiction.

Wrongful termination or disciplinary actions based on drug test results can lead to legal disputes, so employers must be clear, consistent, and legally compliant when defending their actions.

Employer Policies and Procedures

Drug test results represent highly sensitive and strictly confidential health information. Unauthorized disclosure of test results can lead to legal action against the employer. Before taking the drug test, you must agree to your privacy and confidentiality rights.

If the test results are positive, the employer has the right to rescind the job offer or terminate employment. Companies can also take disciplinary action, such as suspension or mandatory participation in a drug treatment center.

In some professions, a positive drug test may result in the suspension or termination of professional licenses or certifications, potentially rendering an individual ineligible for promotions and transfers.

Preparation and Mitigation Strategies

If you’re worried that your substance use may interfere with obtaining employment, it might be time to look into professional treatment. 

Your recovery journey can begin with medical detox. With clinical support, this process rids the body of harmful substances and helps you quit drinking alcohol or using drugs. In the case of alcohol and opioids, detox can be life threatening if done improperly. You can search for qualified detox centers near you to see what substances they treat, insurances they accept, and treatment approach they use. 

Often, detox isn’t enough for full recovery. You and your care team can collaboratively decide which level of care is best for your needs:

  • Outpatient (OP): You’ll meet 1-2x per week with your provider and others in treatment.
  • Intensive outpatient (IOP): You’ll meet 3-5x per week for several hours at a time for more intensive care.
  • Partial hospitalization (PHP): You’ll meet 5-7 times a week for a full day.
  • Residential: You’ll live in a rehab for 28+ days and engage in treatment with a comprehensive staff and a community of peers. 
  • Inpatient: You’ll live in a treatment center or hospital-like setting and have 24/7 monitoring. 

Managing addiction can be a complex and individualized process. Licensed professionals can provide you with appropriate tools, techniques, and support tailored to your specific needs. You may engage in talk therapies such as: 

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to learn how to replace unhealthy thought patterns with more affirming ones.
  • Contingency management (CM) that provides positive reinforcement, such as rewards or incentives, for maintaining abstinence from heroin.
  • Relapse prevention counseling to learn techniques to manage addiction cravings and other symptoms.
  • Motivational interviewing to explore the reasons why you want to recover and use that purpose to motivate change. 

Resources and Support

In the case of employment-related drug testing issues, seeking legal assistance can be a crucial step in understanding your rights, navigating potential consequences, and challenging unjust or unlawful practices. 

If you are struggling with a substance use issue, professional addiction treatment can help you identify triggers and unhealthy behaviors, learn positive coping skills, and adapt lifestyle habits to change your life for the better. Treatment may involve a mixture of evidence-based talk therapies (like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)), holistic healing modalities (like yoga), and support groups (such as AA and NA).

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