Have you been informed that you’ll be required to take a drug test? Do you understand what it is? How it’s done and what the results could lead to?

You’ve been hard at work looking for a job. Your resume was perfect and it got you the interview.

You aced the interview and now you’re told that you have to take a drug test. They tell you that this is part of the hiring process and the results will determine whether you get the job or not.

What’s going on here? Did you look sick during the interview?

Well, probably not. But that’s not the issue here. Before you start thinking about discrimination, get to understand what the drug test really means and why the employer wants you to take it.


A drug test is pretty simple. It’s a test to find out whether you are a drug user. And drug in this case doesn’t mean medicine. This is more of testing for “street drugs,” with the most popular being marijuana.

That’s right. The employer wants to know whether you use these drugs.

And then what?

If you do, they most likely won’t offer you the job.

Before you get angry and start thinking that life is unfair, here’s some background:

See that? Maybe you’re just a hard-working person looking for a job. But just imagine for a second that you were a business owner employing people to help you get your business to the next level.

You want to make more profit so that you can expand and employ even more people and change many lives for the better.

What would you say when you see those numbers?

Exactly. You wouldn’t want them to be part of your business story.

Now imagine that you’re one of those who have been affected. How happy would you be if your business remained affected year in, year out?

When an employer tells you that you have to take a drug test, you might feel uncomfortable. That’s normal. But if you’re clean, then you should not worry at all. It’s just procedural; not with every employer but some.

And by the way, the some is gradually changing to many.

With the rising number of states legalizing marijuana both for medicinal and recreational purposes, it’s only natural that employers become concerned. And what’s more concerning is the fact that more of those engaging in marijuana use and other substances are teens.

Watch NIDA Director Dr. Nora Volkow talk about this.

Every state has its own rules about drug tests but generally, they’re all allowed. Even the states in which marijuana use is already legalized, employers can ask you to take a drug test. And not just before getting the job, even occasionally while on the job.

And at the national level, federal employees, especially those in high safety sectors like manufacturing and transportation are required to take drug tests too. This is basically to keep them and those working around them safe.

All the same, it’s also important to note that drug tests are limited to drugs which have the potential for misuse. This does not just mean “street drugs,” but also includes some prescription drugs as well as alcohol.

Does the mention of prescription drugs scare you? Are you wondering whether using the doctor-prescribed medicine you’re taking will make you lose the job opportunity?

Worry not. As long as you’re taking them as advised, you’re good. All the same, just so you know, there are people abusing those drugs/medicines too.

  • Most abused prescription drugs are painkillers (3.3 million users), tranquilizers (2 million users), stimulants (1.7 million users) and sedatives (0.5 million users)
  • More people are abusing prescription drugs than cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine combined
  • In 2016, more than 46 people died each day from overdoses involving prescription opioids
  • Many teens believe that prescription drugs are much safer than illegal street drugs because they are prescribed by a doctor

How do drug tests work?

Obviously, the biggest concern, especially if you know that you’re clean is whether there can be false positives. A false positive is a situation where your dug test results show that you have any of the tested drugs in your body when you actually don’t.

This isn’t good for you. But what are the chances of this occurring?

Extremely slim.

The one thing you need to check with the employer is where the drug test will be done. Or in other words, who will be conducting it. Here’s a list of some of the reputable companies which conduct drug tests.

Some labs are certified by SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration). The SAMHSA certification is a guarantee for high standards of testing. In fact, all drug tests for federal employees or US Department of Transportation employees, must be done by a SAMHSA-certified lab.

For a complete list of labs certified by SAMHSA, visit this page.

It’s possible that your drug test is scheduled to be done by a lab not on that list. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the results can’t be accurate. All the same, with information about how tests are done, you’ll be able to know whether the lab is a credible place to have the test done.

If you have the name of the lab, just take some time and check it out. You can check them up online or even visit their offices (labs) and find out how they screen for drugs.

You’ll have to take this as an initiative upon being informed of the drug test requirement. In fact, it would be better and easier for you to ask the hiring manager about the lab and how they conduct the test. With the knowledge of how it’s supposed to be done, as shared below, you’ll immediately know if they’re doing it right.

If she can’t explain much to you—which is not unusual since that might require some technical knowledge—just agree to a time which will have allowed you to do your own homework about the lab.

Here’s what to check for.

Any lab conducting drug screening will do it in two steps:

  1. Immunoassay test – this is the initial test that is carried out by the lab. This test is used for screening of the drugs being tested for. If the result is negative, that’s the end of the drug test. The report is issued as being negative. You have none of the drugs being tested for. If however the screening at this initial stage shows a positive, then there’s need to confirm the result. This is when the next test is done.
  2. GC-MS test – this is the test needed to confirm the positive results and prevent the reporting of a false positive. It’s also known as a confirmatory test and it’s performed on a separate portion of the sample you’ll have provided to the lab.

The GC-MS (Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry) test is used in many drug screening programs to increase the level of sensitivity and specificity. It’s used to identify individual drug substances as well as quantify the amount of the substance detected.

After a drug test, you should check to confirm that a GC-MS test was done, especially if the results are positive.


Knowing what tests are done and how they work is great. Something else you need to know is what sample you may be asked to provide. This will increase your knowledge about the process and help you be better prepared for the test.

Although there may really be no choices for you to make here, you never know when this information will come on handy.

So what samples may you be asked for?

Of all the different types of samples you may be required to provide, four are the most common. These are saliva, blood, urine and hair. And of these four, urine is the most common.

Let’s look at each one of them separately.

1. Urine

Urine is the most common sample used for drug tests. A urine test is very cheap while also being very effective. It’s effectiveness is as a result of the fact that urine can show the drug residue that has remained in your system long after drug use.

Even after the effects of a drug have worn off, your body is usually not yet done getting rid of the drug completely. The drug’s metabolites can normally be found in your body system long afterwards.

With a urine drug test, cocaine can be found in your urine up to 3 after taking it, heroin up to 3 days later and marijuana, up to 7 days later.

2. Saliva

Next in line is the saliva. How does it compare to urine as a sample?

Although saliva is also cheap and easy to acquire, it’s effectiveness is not anywhere near that of urine.

When you’re required to give saliva as a sample, you’ll not be asked to spit into a container. No, the lab officer will use a swab to collect the sample from your inner cheek.

When using saliva as the sample for screening, the detection window is usually 24 – 48 hours. If the drug was taken earlier than this, it may not be possible to detect it using saliva. As such, the results may show negative when there’s actually some drug residue in the system.

3. Blood

A blood test is considered the most intrusive of tests since it requires the drawing of blood. Tests done on blood samples are also expensive although their results are the most accurate.

There’s a problem though.

Blood tests are used to measure the amount of drugs in the blood at the time of testing.

Once you combine the expense plus the extremely small detection window, you’ll see why blood isn’t a popular sample for drug tests.

4. Hair

Of the samples in this list, hair is the most unique one. You probably even wondered how your hair could be used as a sample for drug test. Whereas it’s not a common sample, it certainly can be used in special circumstances.

First of all, hair is not often used because it cannot be used to detect one of the most commonly abused drugs—alcohol. That makes it a very poor candidate for popularity.

But don’t be fooled. You hair can easily betray you by giving away your drug use history.

It turns out that your hair can be used to detect drugs taken up to 90 days before the test. That is three months of drug substance storage.

Watch the below video of how Quest Diagnostics conduct their hair drug tests.

So what drugs can your hair be used to test for?

Some of the drugs that can be tested for using your hair are amphetamines, methamphetamines, marijuana, PCP, cocaine, ecstasy and opioids (codeine, morphine, 6-acetylmorphine).

The hair drug test requires between 100 and 120 hairs from different parts of your head. In case you don’t have much hair on your head, body hair can also be used.

How effective is the hair drug test?

For one, you can wash and dye your hair, even use styling products and none of these will affect the accuracy of the test. Also, before the actual test, the hair will be washed and tested for environmental contamination which could affect the test results.

Two tests are then conducted. The first is called ELISA (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay) and it produces results within 24 hours. If the result is positive, then the GC-MS confirmatory test is conducted.

The need for a rapid test

In some situations, there might be a need to test for drugs which might metabolize quickly. If a drug metabolizes quickly, it will not be possible to detect it if a screening is done at a later date.

Rapid tests enable the detection of most drugs of abuse, including alcohol. They can be done at the workplace, at home or at a lab. The most common type or rapid test is the alcohol test which can be conducted using your breath.

This is often done using a device called a breathalyzer.

Rapid tests are however not limited to using your breath to test for alcohol by traffic police. They can also include the use of saliva or urine. The speed of getting results is usually the target as results can be received within 4 hours on average.

All the same, as with the other tests described above, any positive result will still need to be confirmed. The results of the confirmation test will most likely be available in 2 to 3 days.


There are many drugs which tests can check for. Tests are usually distinguished by the number of drugs they test for.

The two most common drug tests are the 5-panel drug test and the 10-panel drug test. Here’s a brief discussion about them.

The 5-panel drug test

The 5-panel drug test is one which tests for five of the most commonly-abused illegal drugs, otherwise known as street drugs. This is the more common of the two and is also used by the Department of transportation as well as the federal government.

Here are the drugs a 5-panel drug test checks for:

  • Marijuana / Cannabis (THC)
  • Cocaine
  • Amphetamine / Methamphetamine
  • Opioids
  • Phencyclidine (PCP)

You’ll notice that alcohol is not on the list. So if an employer wants that tested for too, it can be included. Other drugs can also be included in the test as per the organization’s wishes without necessarily doing a 10-panel drug test.

The 10-panel drug test

The 10-panel drug test on the other hand screens for the drugs screened by the 5-panel test plus five others. The five more drug types are the five most frequently misused prescription drugs.

The 10-panel drug test screens for the following drugs:

  • Amphetamines
  • Cannabis
  • Opioids
  • Cocaine
  • Barbiturates
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Phencyclidine
  • Methadone
  • Methaqualone
  • Propoxyphene

What is the detection window of these drugs? Here are the details in a table format.

Source: Healthline


This is a common question people ask and some even go ahead and attempt to do so if they know they could fail the tests. As much as their desire or even need for the job might be understandable, attempting to cheat is wrong.

If you’re asking yourself the same question with the intent of trying to cheat your way into employment, we advise you to drop the plans.

Cheating attempts have been made through means such as substituting or even diluting urine samples. Other cheats opt to adulterate their urine samples through the use of chemical substances marketed as “urine cleaners.”

Although you may go to great lengths to try and pass the test, lab administrators and their officers are often able to pick up inconsistencies in the samples. They can conduct tests on the samples for things like temperature, pH and nitrate levels, gravity etc to pick up inconsistencies.

Although this may not prove that you’re cheating, it will clearly show that something is not right. That means they’ll be suspicious.

This will make them label the results as inconclusive or invalid. Technically, this is not the same as positive. However, remember that passing the test requires a negative result, not an inconclusive one.

To show you that the cheating is usually detected, between 2017 and 2018, from both federal employees and the general US workforce, an increased number of attempted cheats was recorded. From federal employees, the increase was 80%, from 0.15% to 0.27%. From the general US workforce, the rise was by 40%, 0.15 to 0.21%.

As you can see, these numbers show an increase in the number of cases of attempted cheating. And for these numbers to exist, it means that the cheats weren’t successful.

It’s also worth noting that employers usually conduct drug tests randomly. And if you “passed” the pre-employment drug test but fail the random one, then more questions might be raised.


Increased drug testing has been occasioned by the high impact drug abuse is having at the workplace. And as more states legalize marijuana, more employers are going to require job candidates and employees to take drug tests.

To be employed and remain employed by an employer requiring drug tests, the best thing to do is stay away from drugs.

If you have a history or are an addict of any drug, check out Addiction Center’s Find A Treatment Center page.

We hope you pass your drug test.

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