Cannabis and Isomers like Delta-8 in Spotlight at Federal Testing Meeting

Fewer employers are testing for THC. 

On Tuesday, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Drug Testing Advisory Board held a meeting during which cannabis was a major part of the discussion. 

While a broad range of substances was covered during the meeting, including alcohol, cocaine, and opiates, cannabis and its derived compounds, like delta-8 THC, came up repeatedly. 

Barry Sample, director of science and at Quest Diagnostics, gave a presentation called Workforce Drug Testing for Marijuana in 2021, during which he said that cannabis, “not surprisingly,” has been the “main driver in the positivity rate” in drug testing of federal safety-sensitive employees. These are people who have to follow certain rules in order to comply with federal safety regulations,  like pilots or drivers. 

Between 2012 and 2021 — or, from when the first two states in the nation legalized for adult use through to a period when more than a dozen states followed suit — pre-employment THC positivity for safety-sensitive employees increased 34%.

Sample stressed that correlation isn’t causation, but added that “the data is extremely interesting.” Data also show that THC positives after accidents also rose among safety-sensitive employees.

“This data doesn’t prove that somebody who was using marijuana and they were impaired and that’s why they were involved in a workplace incident that prompted that post-accident drug test,” Sample said. “But, it certainly raises the level of suspicion that there may be something, if they weren’t necessarily impaired that time, something about someone’s usage pattern or somebody who’s regularly using marijuana and whether or not they might be more likely to be involved.” 

One topic of conversation was how the data are changing, in some ways, because some general population employers that can opt-out of including THC in a drug testing panel are choosing to do so. 

“Maybe because of high positivity rates, they decided there’s a business decision, a risk-based decision to remove marijuana from their panel,” Sample said. 

Quest Diagnostics estimates a decline of 11.4% in the rate of general workforce THC tests, with the largest drop in 2021. New York, for example, declined 26.6%. 

“And that’s even without a full year of the new requirements in pertaining to the allowability of including marijuana in those general workforce testing patterns. So I would expect next year, when we look at next year’s data, it’ll be very close to 0% of urine workforce tests will include marijuana” in New York, he said. 

There were several opportunities for question and answer periods. Sample was asked at one point whether employers might opt to test for isomers of delta-9 THC sometime in the future. Isomers like delta-8 and delta-10 THC produce a high and can be derived from extracts of hemp, which is legal under the 2018 Farm Bill. And while these products are in a legal gray area, and regulations vary from state to state, they’ve become increasingly popular.  

Sample said that while “there’s been some interest,” he hasn’t heard of “employers really insisting,” and he added that he thinks it’s more “exploratory.”

“The legal landscape for delta-8, the ambiguity around that, I think, complicates matters. So at least, at the moment, while there’s interest, they’ve not yet made a decision to look at adding delta-8,” Sample said. 

Ron Flegel, director of SAMHSA’s Division of Workplace Programs, gave a presentation that covered updates to proposed urine and oral fluid guidelines for federal workplaces. 

According to Federal Register notices published in April, the federal government is aiming to clarify how it assesses impairment among its employees. 

Specifically, the Department of Health and Human Services wanted to update its “Mandatory Guidelines for Federal Workplace Drug Testing Programs” for oral fluid and for urine, with a two month public comment window that just closed earlier in June.   

When it comes to the guidelines on oral fluid testing, the revision is focused on the Department’s current policy “that ingestion of food products containing marijuana is not an acceptable explanation for a positive drug test result,” the newest document reads. 

“We do have increased public acceptability and availability of marijuana and CBD products and its implications for workplace safety or security,” Flegel said, adding that “we’re looking at the delta-8 and other THC isomers and of course state initiatives to decriminalize marijuana.”

David Engelhart with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission also gave a presentation that included breakdowns of positive tests. Cannabis remains at the top of a list of detection trends. “You still see that alcohol and marijuana continue to be the substances of choice.” 

“I want to point out that anecdotal information from our drug and alcohol testing professionals in the industry indicates that they are having difficulties hiring good people who represent a nuclear safety culture,” Engelhart said, which means that they’re both “trustworthy” and can pass a drug test. 

More Cannabis and Isomers like Delta-8 in Spotlight at Federal Testing Meeting