Spring_2019 Beacon

Adam Hall,
C-SAPA, Quality and
Compliance Manager

Beacon Occupational Health
and Safety Services


Do drug testing levels matter to employers?

Drug testing is a key component in a company’s drug-free workplace program. As states, including Alaska, continue the trend of legalizing marijuana on both medicinal and recreational fronts, employers can be faced with challenges when it comes to adopting an appropriate drug testing policy.

For those companies who have Department of Transportation (DOT)-covered employees, the solution is simple. Marijuana is still federally illegal; therefore, a DOT-covered employee may not use marijuana for any reason regardless of the state in which they live or work.

When it comes to a company’s non-DOT drug-testing policy, these rules can be changed to accommodate new state laws. What is important for employers to understand is that, should they decide to allow their employees to use marijuana, they will be unable to determine if a user is actively impaired by the substance.

In comparison with alcohol testing, breath-alcohol testing is widely accepted to have a direct correlation to impairment, most notably if the level in this test is 0.08 BAC. This shortcoming begs the question many employers ask: Will the donor-specific levels of a positive marijuana test reveal if an employee is impaired?

The answer to this question is simple: no. Knowing a donor’s positive marijuana level will not allow an employer to determine if an employee who uses marijuana is actively impaired or at least was impaired at the time of the drug test. As it currently stands, a marijuana test that directly correlates to impairment is not available.

Given this dilemma some employers have sought alternative testing methods, such as oral fluid testing, and implemented these methods when testing their non-DOT staff. Although urine testing continues to be the industry standard for workplace drug testing, oral fluid testing has a much shorter window of detection than urine testing.

Despite having a shorter detection period, oral fluid testing still does not have a direct correlation to impairment. A knee-jerk reaction an employer may have to a positive marijuana result is to review the donor’s level. However, employers should focus on the positive outcome of a result, as donor levels do not indicate a time of use, frequency of use, duration of use, method of use or level of impairment.

Depending on who the result provider is, usually a third-party administrator, an employer may receive result letters with screening and confirmation testing levels included. These levels are not indicative of the findings in an employee’s test. Instead, these levels may be included on a result to show an employer that the proper test is being performed at the lab as dictated by a certain policy or regulation. Donor levels are not included on a result letter.

The primary reason for this stems from DOT regulations. Medical review officers, or the doctors who review positive results, are prohibited from releasing the donor-specific levels of a positive test to an employer for DOT tests. Although federal regulations do not apply to non-DOT employers or employees, the practice of excluding donor levels is maintained due to the lack of information positive levels provide. This helps employers avoid making an ill-advised decision to ignore policy and accept a positive result based on the assumption that the positive result was only “slightly” positive.

Continuing changes to marijuana laws can seem like an uphill battle for employers when it comes to creating a sound drug-testing policy. Although employers have some options to consider in states where marijuana is legal, sticking to the policy is the most important thing. If your policy includes marijuana on the banned substances list, then consider a positive marijuana result a violation of the policy regardless of the donor’s level. Again, donor levels offer little to no information to employers and have no correlation to impairment.