Cannabis use among U.S. workers is hitting record highs, according to new data analysis, suggesting that the recent wave of marijuana legalizations is impacting workplace dynamics.
A study from Quest Diagnostics, the world’s largest network of diagnostic labs, shows that in 2022, more than one in 25 employees tested positive for cannabis during routine drug screenings – the highest rate since the company started processing these tests 25 years ago.
This figure marks an increase from approximately three percent in 2018. It seems to reflect a growing acceptance of cannabis use, with a particularly high prevalence in the food service and hospitality industries, where eight percent of workers tested positive. Retail workers followed closely behind in the rankings.
Keith Ward, the Vice President for Employer Solutions at Quest Diagnostics, explained: “The overall U.S. workforce positivity rate continued to be at a historically elevated level in 2022, even as much of the nation’s workforce returned to the office post-pandemic.”
“This historic rise seems to correspond with sharp increases in positivity for marijuana in both pre-employment and post-accident drug tests, suggesting that changing societal attitudes about marijuana may be impacting workplace behaviors and putting colleagues at risk.”
Data show a staggering 54 percent surge in cannabis use across all industries in the last five years. In 2018, 2.8 percent of workers tested positive for cannabis, a figure that rose to 4.3 percent in 2022. The rate is the highest it’s been since 1997.
The study analyzed over 6.3 million urine tests from workers across different sectors. Workers in food service, accommodations, and retail were found most likely to use cannabis.
However, the presence of THC — the psychoactive chemical in marijuana — in a person’s system does not imply they are under the influence at work. As THC binds to fat molecules in the body, it can linger for weeks, hence, a positive test may merely indicate past use.
Nevertheless, the consistent increase in cannabis use across all major industries coincides with extensive legalization efforts over the past decade. This suggests that general usage of the drug is increasing, potentially even during work hours.
Workers in the accommodations and food service industry ranked highest for marijuana use, followed by the transportation and warehousing industry. In 2022, 6.4 percent of these workers used marijuana, a figure that has escalated from 2.4 percent in 2018 – an astounding 167 percent increase over five years.
Similarly, cannabis usage in realtors and leasing agents rose from about three percent in 2018 to 5.4 percent in 2022, a 93 percent increase. The wholesale trade sector showed a 125 percent surge in marijuana use, with the rate growing from 2.4 percent in 2018 to over five percent in 2022.
Interestingly, states with legal recreational marijuana use exhibited the most significant increases in test positivity rates, climbing nearly 12 percent from 2021 to 2022.
Comparatively, states allowing only medical marijuana use recorded a milder increase of about eight percent. In states where marijuana remains illegal, the positivity rate rose slightly over three percent year on year and nearly 15 percent over five years — 2.7 percent in 2018 versus 3.1 percent in 2022.
Dr. Suhash Harwani, Senior Director of Science for Employer Solutions at Quest Diagnostics, noted: “In the general U.S. workforce, states that have legalized recreational and medical marijuana use exhibit higher positivity rates than the national average. States that have not legalized marijuana appear to have positivity rates below the national averages.”
Despite the increasing acceptance of marijuana and its touted benefits for treating chronic pain and mental health issues, there is a mounting body of evidence suggesting that the drug might be more detrimental than beneficial in certain scenarios. Specifically, Quest’s findings suggest an increasing correlation between marijuana use and workplace accidents and injuries.
In 2022, 7.3 percent of urine drug tests conducted after accidents in the general workforce came back positive for marijuana. This was an increase of 9 percent from the 6.7 percent recorded in 2021.
Over the past decade, there has been a consistent annual rise in post-accident marijuana positivity, which has surged more than 204 percent since 2012. These statistics are concerning given the known effects of cannabis on cognition and motor skills.
“Intoxicating cannabis products, including marijuana, can have a major impact on safety at work and have been proven to slow reaction time, impact memory and impair skills essential to driving. The Quest data provide compelling evidence that increased use of cannabis products by employees can contribute to greater risk for injuries in the workplace,” said Katie Mueller, a senior program manager at the National Safety Council focusing on cannabis safety.
The study thus raises critical questions about marijuana usage and workplace safety, especially as cannabis continues to be embraced by numerous sectors of the economy and is legalized in an increasing number of states for recreational and medicinal purposes.
Twenty-one states and Washington, DC have legalized it for recreational use, and almost all states now allow its use for medicinal purposes.
This wave of legalization and the corresponding increase in cannabis use among the workforce underscore the need for comprehensive research and clear guidelines to ensure workplace safety.
The increasing trend of workers testing positive for cannabis necessitates a nuanced discussion on the balance between personal freedoms, societal norms, and workplace safety.
Marijuana, also known as cannabis, is a plant that contains compounds called cannabinoids. The two most well-known cannabinoids are THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol).
This is the psychoactive compound in marijuana that causes the high associated with its use. It can influence perception, mood, and cognition. THC can potentially have therapeutic effects, but it’s also linked with negative effects such as anxiety, paranoia, and cognitive impairments. The potency of THC in marijuana has been increasing over the past few decades.
Unlike THC, CBD does not cause a high. It’s been the focus of research for its potential therapeutic effects in treating a variety of conditions, including epilepsy, anxiety, inflammation, and sleep disorders. It’s often extracted from the plant to make oils, creams, and other products.
Marijuana is usually consumed by smoking the dried flowers of the plant, but it can also be vaporized, ingested as an edible, taken as a capsule, or applied topically.
Its effects can vary widely depending on many factors, including the individual’s physiology, the strain of marijuana, how it’s consumed, and the presence of other substances. In general, the effects include relaxation, altered perception, euphoria, increased appetite, and impaired short-term memory.
The legal status of marijuana varies by country and by state. Many states in the U.S. have legalized marijuana for medical use, and a growing number have legalized it for recreational use. Still, it remains illegal at the federal level.
There is a significant body of research on the potential therapeutic effects of marijuana. It’s been used to treat conditions like chronic pain, glaucoma, and nausea from chemotherapy. There is also evidence to suggest it can help with certain types of epilepsy.
However, there are potential health risks associated with marijuana use. Long-term or heavy use can lead to cognitive impairment, particularly in those who start using marijuana at a young age. It’s also associated with mental health risks, such as the onset or worsening of anxiety and depressive disorders, and there is a strong association between cannabis use and the risk of psychosis, though more research is needed to fully understand this relationship.
Marijuana can be addictive, with about 9% of users becoming dependent. The risk of addiction is higher for those who start using in their teens or who use marijuana daily.
As for the societal impact, there is an ongoing debate about the pros and cons of marijuana legalization. Advocates argue that it could lead to reduced law enforcement costs, increased tax revenue, and better quality control and safety regulations. Critics, however, worry about potential public health risks, including increased use and abuse, particularly among young people.
Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and Earth.com.