Marijuana-Positive Drug Tests Rising Faster in Colorado Than Nationwide

The findings of some studies are surprising. Others, not so much.

Quest Diagnostics data that shows a nationwide increase in positive marijuana results during workplace drug tests -- with the numbers even higher in Colorado and Washington -- qualifies as the latter. However, a closer look at the numbers suggests that exercising caution before drawing sweeping conclusions would be wise.

See also: Top Five Lessons From Day One of Marijuana for Medical Professionals Conference

After analyzing 8.5 million urine, oral-fluid and hair drug tests, Quest found that the percentage of positive drug tests went up nationwide in 2013 for the first time in a decade -- although perhaps "ticked up" is a more apt way to put it. The positive rate went from 3.5 percent in 2012 to 3.7 percent last year, and as you can see in the following graphic, these numbers remain small compared to those registered during the late 1980s and early 1990s:

The rise is led by marijuana positives, which are up by 6.2 percent. Again, however, the actually increase is modest: Approximately 1.6 percent of individuals who failed drug tests in 2012 did so due to cannabis, as opposed to 1.7 percent in 2013. Moreover, the 1.7 percent figure is actually the same as in 2009 and 2010. Here's another graphic showing those figures, along with those pertaining to other substances. In regard to those higher numbers in Colorado and Washington, they don't represent a steady leap upward, either -- although they're admittedly substantial. Quest notes that Colorado and Washington marijuana positivity rates were up 20 and 23 percent, respectively, from 2012 to 2013, compared to a 5 percent bump nationwide. Yet the rise in Colorado already appears to have moderated. Figures show a 22 percent increase in Colorado from 2009 to 2010, but only a 3 percent boost from 2011 to 2012. For Washington, the digits are even less consistent -- a 10 percent dip from 2009 to 2010 and an 8 percent rise from 2011 to 2012. Even Quest science-and-technology director Dr. Barry Sample, whose bottom line would presumably be enhanced by pumping up fears about stoned employees, avoids sky-is-falling rhetoric. In a statement, he's quoted as saying that "while Quest's Drug Testing Index shows dramatic spikes in marijuana positivity rates over the past year" in Colorado and Washington, "a longer view of the data suggests a more complex picture. It is possible that relaxed societal views of marijuana use in those two states, relative to others, may in part be responsible for the recent increase in positivity rates. Yet this doesn't explain why both states also experienced steep rises -- and declines -- in positivity in recent years. 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.

"What we do know is that workforce positivity for marijuana is definitely on the rise across the United States," he continues. "It is important for people to remember that while some states have legalized marijuana, the federal government has not. Employers generally have the authority to restrict the 'recreational' use of marijuana by employees and impose sanctions, including termination, on employees with positive drug tests in all fifty states."

That's something Colorado workers have come to understand very well. For the complete report, click here.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts