Pre-Employment Drug Tests: What They Are All About

By Chris Kolmar - Dec. 17, 2020

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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.

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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.

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Chris Kolmar


Chris Kolmar

Chris Kolmar is a co-founder of Zippia and the editor-in-chief of the Zippia career advice blog. He has hired over 50 people in his career, been hired five times, and wants to help you land your next job. His research has been featured on the New York Times, Thrillist, VOX, The Atlantic, and a host of local news. More recently, he's been quoted on USA Today, BusinessInsider, and CNBC.

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