Positive drug tests in workplaces hit 16-year high in 2019

The share of American workers caught with marijuana and other drugs in their bodies reached a 16-year high last year before the coronavirus threatened to drive up drug use further, a study says.

Some 4.5 percent of workers tested positive for drugs in their urine in 2019, a rate higher than any year since 2003 and more than 28 percent above the 30-year low of 3.5 percent seen about a decade ago, according to a Tuesday report from Quest Diagnostics.

The medical-testing giant says COVID-19 could accelerate the trend, as health officials warn people could use drugs to cope with stress and isolation during the pandemic.

“Organizations will need to consider the impact of COVID-19 not only on workplace safety but also as a health concern for their employees for some time to come,” Barry Sample, Quest’s senior director of science and technology, said in a statement.

Last year’s surge in positive tests was driven in part by marijuana, which was detected more commonly than any other illicit substance with a positivity rate of 3.1 percent, according to Quest’s annual review of millions of drug tests.

That’s a nearly 11 percent increase from 2018 and a 29 percent jump from 2015, when pot was found in just 2.4 percent of urine tests, Quest said.

There was also a jump in positive results for methamphetamine, particularly in the Midwest, where the positivity rate for the drug climbed to 0.16 last year from just 0.09 percent in 2015, the study found.

It’s not yet certain whether the pandemic has led to further drug use this year as lockdowns meant to control it sparked widespread layoffs and kept people cooped up at home.

But the early signs are not encouraging. Drug deaths in the first few months of 2020 rose about 13 percent from last year, “attributable partly to social isolation and other disruptions caused by COVID-19,” Quest said, citing a July analysis from The New York Times.

The pandemic has also made it harder for people struggling with addiction to access treatment and has cut them off from support systems like Narcotics Anonymous, according to Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health.

“All of these aspects are translating into much more stress,” Volkow said in a recent conversation with NIH director Dr. Francis Collins. “And stress, as we know, is one of the factors that leads people to relapse. Stress is also a factor that leads many to increase the consumption of drugs.”

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