A new study on drug use among U.S. workers has uncovered a broad increase in positive marijuana tests in employee screenings.
Researchers wonder whether it is a foretaste of what is to come as Americans become more accepting of marijuana and more states legalize recreational use of the drug.
Positive tests for marijuana in employment drug screenings jumped 6.2 percent nationally from 2012-13, according to recent figures from Quest Diagnostics, a New Jersey laboratory that processes more than 8 million drug tests a year.
In the Kansas City, Missouri, area law enforcement officials and drug treatment providers said the new study's marijuana findings roughly mirror what they encounter locally. They cautioned, however, that the data are limited to employed people and those seeking employment and do not reflect the entire universe of drug users.
Introducing the new report, Quest's director of science and technology noted that it probably would take years to determine whether new laws in some states that permit the recreational use of marijuana have distorted the national data.
Positive marijuana tests rose 20 percent in Colorado and 23 percent in Washington after those states legalized its recreational use, Barry Sample noted.
The picture in those states was mixed in the years before legalization. From 2009 to 2010, Colorado showed an increase in positive test results, while Washington showed a decline.
"We will be very interested to see how our data evolves over the next year or two in these two states, relative to those that have not legalized so-called 'recreational' marijuana," Sample said.
Positive test results for prescription painkillers, such as hydrocodone and oxycodone, declined for the second straight year, according to the study. Positive tests for opiates, such as heroin, remained fairly steady.
Treatment providers have noted for years that some users of prescription painkillers have switched to heroin because it is cheaper and sometimes easier to get.
The report included test data from people who were applying for jobs, employees who were subject to random or periodic drug testing, and workers who had given their bosses a reason to demand a test.
David Barton, who leads the Midwest High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program for the federal government, said the Quest data broadly confirm what he sees in the region.
But he's concerned about the persistence and availability of heroin in the Midwest, particularly in "hot spots" such as Kansas City, south St. Louis County, eastern Iowa and Omaha, Nebraska.
He added that Quest data are valuable because federal cutbacks have limited good information about drug-use trends, which is critical intelligence for law enforcement.
"Some of the programs that gave us data have gone by the wayside because of lack of funding, and we struggle with that," Barton said. "We have a public health crisis, and we're very soft on collecting hard data."
James Nunnelly, who advises Jackson County on drug and violence strategies for the anti-drug sales tax, said drug test information he sees from law enforcement and the courts shows a long-term decline in positive tests for marijuana and methamphetamine. That is probably to be expected, Nunnelly said, because he's looking at a population of confirmed drug users who are working to get clean.
Nunnelly endorsed early awareness and intervention programs, such as the school-based DARE initiative, and a drug court, through which first-time, nonviolent offenders can avoid a criminal record by getting clean and employed.
"Combined law enforcement, treatment and prevention is still the best approach and is still is the most effective in curbing drug usage in our area," Nunnelly said.
Another expert saw lost opportunity in the Quest data, which generally reflect trends that she sees locally. Many of the positive test results reported in the study came from existing employees, rather than job seekers, noted Molly O'Neill, president of First Call Alcohol/Drug Prevention and Recovery.
Yet only 2.4 percent of referrals to drug treatment programs come from employers or their employee assistance programs, she said.
Just about everybody who enters drug treatment does so because of outside pressure, be it family or the courts, O'Neill said. Guidance from an employer can be particularly effective.
"This is a pretty significant opportunity that is being missed to improve the health and wellness of the workforce," O'Neill said.
The rise in positive marijuana tests, combined with a similar increase with amphetamines, has fueled a rise in positive drug tests among all U.S. workers for the first time in more than a decade, the study noted.
The 5.7 percent increase from 2012 to 2013 was the first time U.S. workers showed an increase in workplace urine drug tests since 2003, the study noted.