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What is a Pre-employment Drug Test?


A pre-employment drug test is one that is required by employers as a condition of hire. Through the test, employers can determine if a job applicant uses illegal drugs. Oftentimes, and as permitted by state law, an offer of employment is contingent on the applicant passing this drug test.

Drug screenings may also be used for current employees who are returning to work after an injury or illness, for reasonable suspicion, or as part of a random drug testing program.


Why should employers require pre-employment drug testing?

The primary reasons employers conduct pre-employment drug tests are to minimize risks, improve workplace safety, and reduce costs.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), most people who abuse alcohol, prescription drugs, or illegal drugs are employed.

  • 4 million illicit drug users, aged 18 or older, are employed full- or part-time
  • 2 million adult binge drinkers are employed either full- or part-time
  • 4 million adult heavy drinkers are employed


By ensuring employees are not abusing drugs, employers are more likely to see decreased health care costs, decreased absenteeism, and increased productivity. Drug tests also allow the company to benefit from Worker’s Compensation Premium Discount programs. This is especially true for occupations that place employees in safety-sensitive environments, where drug testing is likely to be mandatory. Drug testing further helps reduce costly workers’ compensation claims related to drug or alcohol use.

Employers can also reduce their risks by working only with certified labs to get and verify results. Some jurisdictions have enacted laws that prohibit or limit employers from testing for Marijuana/THC. In this case, or if an employer prefers, the panels can be modified based on those jurisdiction-specific laws or an employer’s needs.


What does a pre-employment drug test look for?

There are many variations for testing, but the most common drug testing panels are the standard 5-panel or 10-panel screenings.


A 5 Panel drug test for:

  • Methamphetamine and Amphetamines
  • Cocaine
  • Opiates including codeine, heroin, and morphine
  • PCP or Phencyclidine
  • Marijuana (THC)


A 10 Panel drug test for:

  • Methamphetamine
  • Cocaine
  • Amphetamine
  • PCP or Phencyclidine
  • Opiates including morphine, codeine, and heroin
  • Marijuana (THC)
  • Methadone (for typical 9-panels, this is the drug removed)
  • Propoxyphene
  • Barbiturates
  • Benzodiazepines


What about testing for marijuana (THC)?

With many states allowing marijuana for medical purposes and many others allowing recreational marijuana use, testing for THC can add an extra layer of compliance concerns for an employer. New York, Nevada, and Philadelphia are examples of jurisdictions that have enacted laws prohibiting testing for marijuana for most employment purposes.

Other states have placed restrictions on employers from disciplining employees for legal off-duty use. Working with a background screening or drug testing company that understands the nuances of these laws should help in limiting your company’s exposure to costly penalties or lawsuits.


What are the different drug testing specimen types used for employment screening?

Different drug testing types include urine, saliva, and hair testing. Both urine and saliva testing can be done instantly or sent to a lab for testing. Lab-based testing is recommended, as it is far more accurate. The old adage, ‘you get what you pay for’ applies to instant versus lab-based drug testing.


  • Urine is the most common, partly because it is currently the only testing allowed for regulated industries, such as the Department of Transportation (DOT) and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). It is also easy to administer, affordable, and results are typically returned quickly.


  • Oral fluid testing, also called a saliva test, collects saliva from the person’s mouth. It has become increasingly popular as it is far less invasive and more convenient for the applicant/employee. These tests can be done on-site or remotely via video, making them quick and efficient. Although not allowed for DOT testing, the DOT is contemplating use for future testing. Saliva testing has the shortest detection window and is beneficial for recent usage testing.


  • Hair testing is the least used of the testing methods. It is the most expensive and although it has the longest detection window, it may miss recent usage that a urine and oral fluid test would reveal. However, many consider hair testing as the best indicator of repeat drug use with this longer window.


Who is a Medical Review Officer (MRO)?

According to the DOT, “[a] Medical Review Officer (MRO) is a person who is a licensed physician and who is responsible for receiving and reviewing laboratory results generated by an employer’s drug testing program and evaluating medical explanations for certain drug test results.” MROs provide quality assurance reviews of the drug testing process by reviewing the confirmed laboratory results before they are sent out.

In some situations, having an MRO is required, such as by state or federal law. In other instances, employers choose to have one as a best business practice in their drug screening program.


Are pre-employment drug tests legal?

In the United States, pre-employment drug testing is legal, but employers must be aware of state and local laws. Some states restrict how and when drug screenings can be conducted or for what substance. There are additional requirements regarding applicants’ knowledge of, and consent to, drug tests and that the same type of drug test must be used for the same job. When federal agencies conduct drug tests, they must follow the standardized procedures set out in SAMHSA, including (1) the requirement of an MRO to review all drug tests and (2) the use of a certified laboratory.

With the constantly evolving laws, it is imperative for employers to consult with their legal counsel and work with a knowledgeable, PBSA-certified background screening company to remain in compliance.

Hire Image strives to be your trusted background screening resource. If you have any questions about your own background or drug screening processes, please contact us.

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