Tips for Effective Drug Screening

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In the past, the best practice for a drug testing program was simple: follow the Department of Transportation (DOT) guidelines. The DOT drug testing guidelines are well thought out, well documented and legally defensible. Over the past several years however, the best practice landscape has evolved due to changes in technology, information and type of drug use. It is important for all managers of drug testing programs to recognize these changes and understand how they can impact drug screening success.

Technology has allowed for significant improvements in drug testing methodologies during the past five years and the industry is just now beginning to catch up. The most substantial gain has been in the accuracy and efficiency of testing alternate samples such as saliva and hair. The gold standard for a drug test has long been a urine test, but this testing method has drawbacks.

Urine-based Testing Drawbacks

Urine-based drug tests have three major deficiencies that drug test program developers should know. The first deficiency of urine tests is the ability to adulterate the test. The second is that the test can be uncomfortable to take as well as administer. The third deficiency is that drug test donors often know that most drugs leave the system within 48 hours so they tend to wait a few days before showing up at the collection site.

If you search for the words “pass a drug test” in Google, you will find more than 650,000 pages of information on how to cheat a drug test. These pages contain many types of products from herbal drinks to “drug free samples.” Many of these products can successfully evade a positive drug test result and there is evidence that these products are being used in substantial quantities. In 1998, 13.6% of tests conducted by Quest Diagnostics were positive. This number has decreased every year since, to only 4.3% in 2005.

Other Testing Options

Drug tests using saliva and hair solve the issues that urine testing presents. Tests using these samples are relatively non-invasive. The saliva test is generally administered by sticking a little device, similar to a lollipop, in one’s mouth for a minute or so. Since a saliva test is commonly done by Human Resource administrators, donors generally don’t have the luxury to wait several days before taking the test. Hair tests are typically administered by clinics but since drugs are detectable in hair for 90 days, it is also not possible for the donor to wait it out until their system is clean.

The most important advantage that both saliva and hair tests have over the standard urine test is that both are very difficult to adulterate. Products that can fool the toxicologists and laboratories have not yet been developed.

Tips for Today

For a best practice drug screening program in today’s environment, consider two possible options. The first is to use a saliva lab-based test, and the second is to use a combination of urine tests and hair tests. In the combination scenario, as long as the applicant tests within 48 hours of notification, a urine test is sufficient. When the 48-hour deadline can’t be or isn’t met, a hair test should be employed. Clients that use this policy have seen as high as an 18% positive rate on hair tests.

Another critical tool used to ensure a solid drug testing program includes the use of Adulterant testing. Many employers now test for the commonly used adulterants that allow donors to cheat the standard urine test. Adulterant testing usually only adds minimal cost to the price of a drug test, but offers significant assurances that the test will be effective.

One big change in the evolving area of drug test best practices centers around the drugs to test for in a drug test. Perhaps 80% of all pre-employment drug tests conducted use a standard five-panel test. The five-panel test looks for Marijuana, Cocaine, PCP, Amphetamine, and Opiate metabolites in the donor’s system. These drugs are considered the most commonly abused drugs in the United States but are by no means the only drugs abused. The use of Ecstasy (MDMA) has skyrocketed in popularity over the past decade. According to the Partnership for a Drug Free America, Ecstasy use has risen 71% since 1999 to an estimated 3 million users. LSD and Methaqualone (Quaaludes) are also not tested in the standard five-panel but are still moderately abused in the United States today.

When choosing what drugs to test for, it is important to consider who you are testing and why you are testing them. The average age of an Ecstasy user is 22, while the average age of a Cocaine user is 34. Individuals in the medical field tend to have greater access to addictive pharmaceutical drugs and these individuals tend to abuse Rx drugs more than traditional street drugs. As a best practice, it is recommended to test these audiences for ten drugs which include Marijuana, Cocaine, PCP, Amphetamines, Opiates, Barbiturates, Benzodiazepines, Methadone, Propoxyphene, and Methaqualone.

As the drug abuse and drug testing landscape is shifting, it is critical to evolve your company’s employment background screening policies to meet new challenges. While the suggestions above are by no means a full set of best practices, they are a set of “savvy” tactics that can help your company stay one step ahead of costly hiring mistakes.

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HireRight is a leading provider of on-demand employment background checks, drug and health screening, and electronic Form I-9 and E-Verify solutions that help employers automate, manage and control background screening and related programs.

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