Pre-Employment Drug Tests: What They Are All About

By Jack Flynn - Nov. 11, 2021

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When there are only a few hurdles left to tackle on your path to employment, it’s easy to start celebrating early. After all, getting a chance at a new job is always an exciting experience.

You even might wonder: “What hurdles could be left?”

Well, employers often ask for pre-employment drug screening before your new position is official. Drug testing is common, as sobriety is a critical aspect of job function for many positions. This is especially true for jobs that require driving, the operation of heavy machinery, or patient care, as these are all sensitive tasks that can not be completed safely under the influence of drugs.

Remember, pre-employment drug testing is a cost-saving, preventative measure for companies, so you shouldn’t be surprised when they hit you with one. Instead, this article will discuss the nature of drug tests, as well as serve as a guide for what these tests mean for you.

Pre-Employment Drug and Alcohol Screening

So, when and why do employers perform drug tests? Often, the process is far from a personal judgment on you and simple protocol for the company in question. Typically, employers may drug test all potential employees as part of the pre-employment hiring process, even if there are no circumstances for them to suspect you of drug use. In this case, whether or not you’re officially hired can be contingent upon passing pre-employment drug and alcohol tests.

For companies, conducting pre-employment drug tests revolve around safety and can help mitigate any risks associated with drug misuse. Not to mention that if an employer indicates employment as being contingent on the results of a drug test, they hope to deter substance abusers from applying altogether. These screenings are vital for occupations that place employees in safety-sensitive environments, as for these positions, sobriety is a crucial aspect of job safety.

Keep in mind that drug testing laws vary by state. For example, some states have limits on when and how drug screening can be conducted. On the other hand, some areas of the country or specific job fields are required by law to conduct regular drug testing. These include industries regulated by the U.S. The Department of Transportation, which follow federal and state drug testing requirements. In general, you can find out more about what applies to you by visiting your state’s website.

Further, while employers may randomly screen employees, they must be consistent in how they drug-test applicants. Selectively testing some applicants while not testing others is prohibited by law.

For the most part, these tests are routine for certain fields and companies. When in doubt, research whether or not a company requires drug tests before you decide to apply.

Workplace Substance Abuse Regulations

In addition to drug test laws, federal and state laws discuss substance abuse in the workplace. These laws outline what policies employers can set. For example, employers can prohibit drug and alcohol use, test for drug use, and fire employees who are engaged in illegal drug use.

However, keep in mind that employees with substance abuse issues are protected by federal and state laws that regulate discrimination and disabilities.

The Nature of Drug Tests: What Are They and What Can You Expect?

Chances are, if you’re being asked to do a drug test, you’ll probably receive a urine test. For one, urine tests have a relatively quick return rate, so everyone will know the results sooner. Also, companies favor a urinalysis because it will reveal the presence of drugs in your system even if their effects have worn off.

For instance, you’ve probably heard that drug tests can detect marijuana in your system up to a month after use. In general, the length of time a drug stays in your system depends on several individual factors, from the kind of drug used, to how much of the drug was taken, to even the amount of body fat each person has.

Here are some common drugs that can be revealed by a drug test:

  • Methamphetamines (meth, speed, ecstasy)

  • THC (cannabinoids, marijuana)

  • Alcohol

  • Cocaine

  • Opiates (heroin, opium, morphine)

  • Phencyclidine (PCP, angel dust)

Once your sample is collected, a certified laboratory will analyze it. Then, if your test were to result in a positive reading (meaning evidence of drug use was found), the results would be forwarded to a medical review officer. The officer reviews the results and ensures that there aren’t any alternative, valid medical explanations for the presence of drugs in your system.

For example, opiates can be prescribed as pain killers to patients, so a medical officer will check to ensure that your current prescriptions aren’t interfering with your drug test results. Remember that although the test may be reported as negative in this instance, medications (such as opiates) may still inhibit an individual’s safety or performance on the job. Knowing these factors about you as a worker is one of the many reasons companies may choose to conduct a pre-employment drug test.

Other Types of Drug Tests

While urine tests are the most common, there are a few other types of drug tests you may come across. These include:

  • Blood tests. If you’ve ever had blood drawn at the doctor, you’ll know what to expect. A blood drug test can be used to detect the same drugs as a urine test, but having to draw blood generally makes it a more complicated and less popular method. When taken, a blood test will measure the amount of alcohol or drugs present in your blood at the time it was drawn.

  • Breathalyzer tests. If your employer is interested in your blood alcohol content (BAC), they may ask you to participate in a breathalyzer test. These types of tests are commonly given to drivers suspected to be under the influence, as they measure how much alcohol is currently in your blood. Keep in mind that breathalyzer tests only show current levels of impairment or intoxication, as generally, one ounce of alcohol stays in a person’s system for no longer than an hour.

  • Mouth swab tests. This option is generally quick and easy, but unlike urine tests, mouth swab tests can only detect the presence of drugs from five to 48 hours. Usually, these tests collect saliva from inside of your mouth with a q-tip-like object. Then, the saliva is tested in a laboratory. These tests require you to refrain from consuming food or beverages 10 minutes prior to specimen collection, as that can make the sample illegible and unviable.

  • Hair tests. By far, hair tests have the most longevity out of the various types of tests, as drug use can be seen up to 90 days after the drug was taken. However, this test doesn’t indicate current impairment due to drugs, only past use. Additionally, while hair drug tests can detect most drug types, they cannot detect alcohol. To perform the test, a technician will cut at least 100 strands of hair close to the scalp, and the hair shaft will be tested in a laboratory.

With the growing legalization of medical and recreational marijuana use, many people wonder how those legalizations affect company administered drug tests. As mentioned previously, when a drug test is received, a medical review officer analyzes it to see if there are any alternative explanations for a positive test result. This stage of the drug test is important, as it ensures your rights as a citizen are being upheld.

The issue of legal marijuana use by employees proves to be complicated, as the federal government still has not legalized marijuana. Instead, states have jurisdiction over the legalization and decriminalization of drugs. Some states have legislation that protects medical marijuana users, while others do not.

For example, while Oregon legalized marijuana before Nevada, Nevada became the first state to prohibit employment denial because of the presence of marijuana in a drug test. In this case, Nevada currently has more protections for employees, even though several other states have legalized marijuana prior.

Some states also consider the use of medical marijuana a disability protection. For instance, under New York’s Compassionate Care Act, a patient prescribed medical marijuana is regarded as having a “disability” and protected by the New York State Human Rights Law.

When in doubt, research your state’s laws and be aware that the federal government still hasn’t legalized marijuana use.

Overall, it’s safer to make sure you don’t have any drugs in your system for a drug test, but if you have medical reasons for using marijuana, there are states with protections.

Pre-Employment Drug Tests: What They Are All About FAQ

  1. What is the most common pre-employment drug test?

    The most common pre-employment drug test is a urinalysis. A urinalysis is a very easy test to administer, the results are returned relatively quickly, and they can determine even traces of a drug in the body after the effects have worn off.

    That gives employers a deeper look into your background to see if they should be concerned about potential drug and alcohol use.

    A urinalysis can test for alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines and methamphetamines, PCP, opiates, and more, but those are the most common drugs singled out for testing.

    While a urinalysis is the most common drug test employers use for potential employees, they may also use hair testing, blood testing, mouth swabs, and breathalyzer tests.

  2. What drugs do they test for pre-employment?

    Pre-employment drug tests usually test for alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines and methamphetamines, PCP, and opiates.

    This is a pretty thorough list of illegal and some legal drugs that companies can test for, but it’s by no means a complete list of all the drugs they could test for, and it doesn’t suggest that you will be tested for all of those drugs.

    Each company can have different drugs they test for in a pre-employment screening. Especially with the decriminalization of marijuana in some states, that might make an employer skip that test. Similarly, because alcohol is legal and moderate use is very widespread, they might not care about that during a pre-employment test.

    Now, being drunk on the job is totally different, and they may test for that if there’s a concern, but having a glass of wine with dinner, in most situations, isn’t going to prevent you from getting a new job.

    You should note that some medications can create a positive drug test when you haven’t been using any illegal substances. The hiring manager or a medical review officer should go through your drug test results and medications to see if this may be the situation.

    That doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re “clear” for the job, but there is usually some leeway and understanding if you’re on something like a pain medication that can create a positive result.

  3. What can I expect from a pre-employment drug test?

    You can expect not to get hired by a company until you pass a pre-employment drug test. If a company requires that you take a drug test prior to employment, then they most likely have made your potential hiring contingent upon you passing the test.

    If you’re asked to take a urine drug test, in most cases, you’ll be given an appointment time at a clinic or a facility where they routinely do drug testing. You’ll show up and be told or given paperwork that details how to do the urine test. The test will be conducted, and you’ll be sent home to await the results. Usually, this takes a few days to a week.

    You can ask at the clinic, and they’ll have a more accurate estimate on how long it takes to get results based on their experience. Other drug tests will probably be handled similarly so they can have trained professionals conduct the test.

    If you’re being hired with a group, the employer may arrange to do the drug testing onsite at the time of the interview or at another time. This can sometimes be more convenient for the employees and the employer.

    There typically will be a waiting period after the drug test. Once the results are in, the company may offer you a job if you’ve passed the test.

    If you didn’t pass the test, they might call to tell you that you did not pass and will not be offered the job, or they might have a medical review officer study the results in more detail to determine if there is a legitimate reason why you did not pass.

  4. When do pre-employment drug tests happen?

    Pre-employment drug tests happen before you’re hired for a job. Interestingly, each state has different rules on conducting drug tests for employment. In some states, you need to be given a job offer contingent upon a passing drug test before you’re required to take one.

    In other states, the potential employer can drug screen every applicant and only offer the job to those who pass. If you’re concerned about what to expect in your state, it’s best to do a little research to see what the laws are.

    Most pre-employment drug tests do not happen immediately when you’re called in for an interview. They typically are scheduled for outside appointments at approved facilities or clinics. If a drug test is going to be performed onsite or at the interview, that’s usually information provided beforehand and may even appear in the job posting.

  5. Will my employer tell me if I passed a drug test?

    Yes, in most cases, the employer will tell you if you’ve passed the drug test. You’ll usually find out when they offer you the job. But there is another way that you’ll get your drug test results.

    When you go to have your test performed, you’ll be required to sign a release that lets the employer have access to this medical information. You’ll typically also be listed as someone who will get the test results.

    You may get this through the mail, email, or a phone call. Whether it’s through the employer or the clinic, you will receive the results of your drug test.

  6. How long do pre-employment drug screen results take?

    It only takes a few days to receive the results of your pre-employment drug test in most situations. It all depends on which type of test your potential employer requires. Some are rapid tests, which are limited in what they test and but the results are returned within 24 hours.

    Sometimes the clinic or testing facility has a backlog, and it can take a week or more to receive the results. In general, expect the results to come back within three to five business days. If you want a more specific answer, it’s best to ask at the clinic when you do your drug screening test.

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Jack Flynn

Jack Flynn is a writer for Zippia. In his professional career he’s written over 100 research papers, articles and blog posts. Some of his most popular published works include his writing about economic terms and research into job classifications. Jack received his BS from Hampshire College.

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