To many, the idea of submitting a urine sample as a condition of employment seems to be invasive and a breach of privacy. Where did this idea come from?

Drug testing saw its beginning shortly after the Vietnam War when President Richard Nixon directed the military to initiate a urine drug testing program. Disturbingly high positivity rates among military personnel led the Department of Defense to formally define forensic drug testing requirements in 1982.

In the mid-1980s, Quest Diagnostics began offering employer drug tests, though employee drug testing did not become common until 1991 when the Omnibus Transportation Employee Drug Testing Act was passed. The Omnibus Transportation Employee Drug Testing Act required the drug and alcohol testing of U.S. Department of Transportation applicants and employees.

Many state regulatory agencies established rules regarding the handling of worker’s comp and unemployment claims when employees failed drug tests. At this time, twelve states offer workers comp premium discounts to employers who employ state-defined drug-free workplace programs.

In 1988, Quest Diagnostics released the first Drug Testing Index (DTI), which examined positivity rates and comprehensive analysis of drug-use trends. The first DTI highlighted a drug test positivity rate of 13.6%.

Also in 1988, Congress passed both the Drug-Free Workplace Act and the Anti-Drug Abuse Act in response to a mounting number of drug and alcohol-related accidents, including one fatal train accident in which the train’s operator tested positive for marijuana.

With the new federally-mandated drug testing regulations, a growing industry of testing providers, and revealing data from sources like the DTI, private sector employee drug testing took off. As for any 4th Amendment concerns, private businesses are not subject to the strictures of the Fourth Amendment unless their testing programs are mandated and regulated by law.

Since that first study in 1988, drug test positivity rates continually declined among employers with a drug testing program in place. From a high of 13.6% in 1988, down to 3.5% in 2012, this downward trend suggests that drug testing effectively discourages drug use among the American workforce.

In the last few years, there have been dramatic increases in positivity in certain sectors. The headline for Quest’s 2018 DTI released in April 2019 states “Workforce Drug Testing Positivity Climbs to Highest Rate Since 2004.” You can view an interactive map here.

In September 2019, Quest reported that from 2015-2018, the following industries saw double digit increases in marijuana positives: Transportation & Warehousing (non DOT) (53.3%); Mining (50%); Wholesale Trade (47.1%); Construction (46.7%): Manufacturing (38.5%); Accommodation and Food Services (37.9%); Administrative Support, Waste Management and Remediation Services (33.3%); Public Administration (30.0%); Retail Trade (29.6%).

Out of all sectors, Construction showed the highest positivity rate for cocaine and was more than 40 percent higher than the national rate in 2018. Construction was also the only sector with year-over-year increases in methamphetamine positivity (increasing 20 percent from 2015 to 2018) and was more than 30 percent higher than the national rate in 2018.

Having a drug testing program in place seems to lead to lower positivity rates as drug users seek employment where they are not likely to be drug tested.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 11% of adults employed full-time currently use illegal drugs. The U.S. Department of Labor states that more than 60% of adults know someone who has come to work under the influence of alcohol or other drugs. These statistics suggest drug use at a higher rate than is detected in employee drug tests, again lending credibility to the fact that drug testing programs deter drug use.

Employee drug testing exists for a reason. Borne out of safety concerns for federal employees, private sector employers have embraced the safety and productivity benefits that accompany a drug free workplace. Approximately 80% of the industry is for non-regulated employers, with the majority of the remainder falling under US Department of Transportation regulations.