Categorized | Job Hunting

College Students and Drug Testing

Posted on 16 July 2009

Has a tight labor market relaxed the rules?

It’s no secret that many companies require job candidates to pass a drug test as a condition of employment. But are grads who use recreational drugs really limiting their career prospects?

The Biology of Deception
We’ve all heard tales of beating the drug test itself. Some advised drinking bitter liquids like vinegar or pickle juice. It was rumored that certain vitamin supplements might jinx the test, or flushing your system with diuretics and lots of water. Many products have come and gone from the market–all designed to quell the desperation of job candidates who wanted negative results. But the bottom line remains unchanged: The only foolproof way to pass a drug test is to avoid drug usage, or at least to let nature clear your body of its evidence over time.

How long does that take? Different drugs remain in the body for different periods of time–and you can’t know in advance which ones the company is testing for. Oddly enough, traces of marijuana stay in the body longer than ‘harder’ drugs. This is especially true for regular, habitual users. It can be detected in a simple screening for several weeks after usage. Even if you only indulged once, it can take several days to clear your system entirely. Traces of cocaine, amphetamines, and opiates may disappear within a few days.

Job candidates underestimate the capabilities of modern drug tests.

Dr. Cynthia Kuhn is a professor of pharmacology at Duke University Medical School and co-author of Buzzed: The Straight Facts About the Most Used and Abused Drugs From Alcohol to Ecstasy. She pulls no punches when it comes to drug testing. “The more marijuana you have in your system,” she says, “the more likely it is that you’re going to get caught.”

But there aren’t any hard and fast rules on how long drugs may stay in the body. It depends on many interrelated factors: amounts used, frequency, and individual metabolisms. For example, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active ingredient in marijuana, stores itself in fat cells. Women, who are biologically prone to have more of these cells than men, will retain traces of the drug longer. And don’t bother trying to flush your system. Drug testers also check to make sure your urine is an appropriate concentration. If you give them a sample that’s all water, you’ll probably have to do it again (and again, and again).

Products that can be added to urine to corrupt the test have limited success as well. For starters, many tests are supervised and, according to Dr. Kuhn, those products change the physical nature of urine. Competent testers will pick up on that, too.

Practical Advice
Modern drug testing methods are pretty accurate, but false positives can occur. Eating poppy seeds can sometimes cause a positive test for opiates. Don’t panic if that happens to you. When a positive result comes back from the lab, employers will then ask for a more sensitive test to confirm the original. Andy Gross, president of Career Group Staffing Services in West Springfield, MA, has seen job candidates underestimate the capabilities of drug tests and the results were usually unfortunate.

“I don’t think some people realize how sophisticated the technology is,” Gross says. “They knew they were going to have to take a test and they still failed.” Gross advises people seeking jobs to be prepared for pre-employment drug screening. “More and more companies are doing it because there is such a liability if something happens after the fact.”

And some industries rely more on a drug test than others. Professional athletes, construction workers, and people who operate machinery are likely to be tested for drug use. If an employer hires union workers, drug testing is a mandatory negotiation subject. So tradespeople, such as carpenters and electricians, may be subject to drug testing as part of their union agreement.

Federal law requires that workers in the transportation industry, such as truck drivers and airline pilots, be tested for drug use. Government workers and employees of businesses with annual government contracts of more than $25,000 are also regularly tested. State laws on the subject vary considerably, but most require that you be told beforehand that you’ll be tested.

Many Fortune 500 companies have drug-testing policies in place. And they have many incentives to enforce them: drug abuse has been shown to lower productivity, raise medical costs and absenteeism, and produce sub-quality work.

The Big Secret
Drug tests, which the employer underwrites, are not cheap. Many small businesses are now opting out of the big costs of screening job candidates.

“Big companies have the recruiting resources to drug test, but smaller businesses tend not to do it unless they have encountered problems in the past,” says William Hubbartt, a human resources management consultant in Illinois and author of The New Battle Over Workplace Privacy. Many recruiters are noticing a general trend toward unenforced testing policies at companies desperate to attract top young talent.

“Because of the tight recruiting situation right now, some employers are willing to look the other way,” Hubbartt claims. “Lots of requirements are being tossed out the window.” But if lax attitudes toward drug testing are growing for now, Hubbartt doesn’t believe it will last forever. “Some younger employers who participated in recreational drugs may not see it as a big concern,” he adds. “But as time goes by, and the stakes for these small companies get bigger, and they see their success jeopardized, that perspective will change fast.”

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1 Comments For This Post

  1. Drug Testing Company says:

    The article claims that because the recruiting situation is tight right now that employers are willing to look away. Personally, I think this is a mistake.

    If the economy is tight, you need to make your company as profitable as possible… which means having the best employees as possible. So testing for harsh drugs would be a smart move for the companies.

    Of course, testing exclusively for marijuana is not a smart move.. I know some great workers that smoke up on the weekends.

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