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Floridians testing positive for drugs more often

A big jump in marijuana use drove the numbers.
Floridians are testing positive for marijuana and some other drugs more often than a few years ago.
Floridians are testing positive for marijuana and some other drugs more often than a few years ago. [ RICHARD VOGEL | AP ]
Published Sep. 27, 2019

Florida’s teachers are less likely to test positive for drugs than other workers. On the other hand, employees in safety-oriented fields like nuclear power plant operators are consuming drugs far more often than just a few years ago, according to Quest Diagnostics, one of the country’s largest drug testing companies.

Each year, Quest crunches the numbers on about 10 million saliva and hair tests to shed light on who’s testing positive and for which drugs. The company kindly pulled out the Florida numbers for me.

The state compared well. We had fewer positive tests overall — 4.1 percent versus 4.4 percent for the country. We also had fewer positive tests for marijuana — 2.3 percent versus 2.8 percent. Same for opiates and cocaine.

That was the good news.

RELATED STORY: Saving electricity employs more Floridians than alternative energy

On the downside, Quest found that positive tests nationwide hit a 14-year high in 2018, led by a big bump in marijuana use. Positive tests for workers in safety-sensitive jobs like air traffic controllers and train conductors jumped nearly 60 percent in the past four years.

Florida followed a similar pattern. In the past four years, positive drug tests jumped nearly 11 percent. Safety-sensitive workers were testing positive more often, too. Those workers still tested positive less often than the general public, but the numbers were growing quickly.

Of the 10 largest jobs sectors, store clerks and other retail workers in Florida tested positive most often, nearly one out of 20 times. Restaurant and hotel employees came in second.

Construction workers had the most positive tests for cocaine. Technical, professional and scientific services was No. 1 for opiates like heroin.

In a twist, teachers had the highest rate of positive tests for amphetamines, which can be used to stay awake, lose weight or treat attention deficit disorder.

RELATED STORY: Why we miss the crippled Crystal River nuclear plant.

Marijuana, though, drove the increase in Florida’s positive tests, jumping 21 percent in the past four years. That’s not a surprise, given that overall use of the drug is climbing. Medical marijuana is legal in Florida, and there’s a push to allow recreational use, like 11 other states and Washington, D.C.

Unlike alcohol, traces of marijuana can stay in a person’s system for months. Most of the tests only show the presence of the drug’s psychoactive ingredient — the part that makes people high. The tests can’t say whether the person inhaled an hour ago or last week. That makes it hard to know whether the person is impaired or not.

Drug testing took off in 1986 after President Ronald Reagan recommended it for anyone who applied for government work. The 1988 Drug Free Workplace Act expanded testing to federal contractors and paved the way for testing anyone in safety-sensitive industries including aviation, trucking and mass transit.

Today, about 60 percent of employers test for drugs, but many are starting to warm up to the idea that some of their employees need marijuana or other drugs to help with pain and other ailments. Some have stopped testing for marijuana or are trying out newer tests that claim to detect whether someone used the drug in the past two or three hours.

No one wants their airline pilot to be high on cocaine, but we probably need to get used to more people walking around with marijuana in their systems.