Negative Drug Test

A Negative Marijuana Test Result Might Be More Important Than a Positive One

By Nina M. French
President Employer Solutions, Hound Labs

Jun 1, 2021

With increased legalization and acceptable use of marijuana, positive oral fluid, urine, and hair test results no longer provide as much value.

Recent news coverage has focused on the increasing positivity rate of marijuana in urine workplace drug tests. Prior to 1996, the interpretation of this data would have been fairly straightforward – more employees are using an illegal substance and employers have a problem. However, in 2021, with over 183 million adults in the United States who can legally use cannabis, interpreting the data is no longer as easy. This is because positive test results from conventional marijuana tests of urine, as well as oral fluid and hair, no longer provide the relevant data that employers now need.

Positive results after impairment subsides

There is agreement that impairment from marijuana use is short-lived. It certainly doesn’t last for days, weeks, or months. The problem with conventional tests for marijuana is that they provide positive results for days, weeks, and months after marijuana use – long after impairment subsides. So, the positive results from conventional tests may merely reflect an employee or candidate’s legal choices during their personal time and have no correlation to being high at work. There is no way to modify the cutoff levels of these tests or further analyze the test data to isolate recent marijuana use.  

Employers wouldn’t take action on positive test results for alcohol if an employee had consumed two martinis two days prior to the test. Now that most adults have legal access to marijuana, many employers are thinking the same way about marijuana. As one employer in the Northeast shared, “I don’t care what my employees do on a Friday or Saturday night, but I do care about whether they use marijuana right before they operate safety-sensitive equipment.”   

What if most of the positive test results are actually negative?

The only way to really understand whether the increasing marijuana positivity rates pose a problem is to understand whether they are positive due to recent use. NHTSA states that most behavioral and physiological effects of cannabis return to baseline levels within 3-5 hours after use. Since conventional drug tests of oral fluid, hair, and urine all have detection windows that extend beyond 3-5 hours, most of the positive test results would be negative if only new breath testing technology was used.

Testing breath for cannabis will provide more negative results

Employers must now accept that legal marijuana is widely available to their candidate pool and their employees. Those who use a marijuana breathalyzer to isolate recent marijuana use will be better able to fairly address their employees’ legal use because their marijuana use on a Saturday night will result in a negative marijuana test result on Monday’s random drug test. Marijuana breath testing is the only way to balance SAFETY+FAIRNESS™ in the workplace today.

Negative results support employers’ goals of retaining employees

In a tight labor market, employers are looking for every possible way to attract and retain qualified employees. Breath testing allows employers to continue workplace drug testing – an effective risk mitigation tool and a proven method of deterring and detecting drug use in the workplace – while attracting and retaining qualified employees. Employers who continue to rely only on conventional testing methods of oral fluid, hair, and urine will place themselves at a competitive disadvantage because not only are the positive marijuana test results unfair to employees, but they are also costly to employers. It is possible to balance SAFETY+FAIRNESS in a tight labor market if employers integrate new marijuana breath testing technology to deter and detect marijuana use while also recognizing employees’ rights to legally use marijuana.