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January 23rd, 2015 | Sterling

Which Drugs Should Employers Consider Testing For In 2015?

Which Drugs Should Employers Be Testing For In 2015?

The World Drug Report issued by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in 2012 highlights:

  • Roughly 230 million people around the world used illicit drugs at least once in 2010
  • Problem drug users number about 27 million
  • Illicit drug use continues to rise in several developing countries

Ever since the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) was passed in the United States back in 1970, and President Nixon declared the “War On Drugs” in 1971, we’ve been aggressively trying to get our arms around the drug abuse problem.  Unfortunately, drug abuse isn’t a constant, and the situation needs to be consistently monitored. Quest Diagnostics, a leading provider of workplace drug testing services, recently reported that positive drug tests among American workers in 2013 increased for the first time in a decade.

So, what drugs should employers be most concerned about?  The information below provides some insight into the most commonly abused drugs. You can also find more useful details and information at NIDA – Commonly Abused Drugs, and NIDA – Commonly Abused Prescription Drugs.


After alcohol, marijuana is the most widely abused substance, and its decriminalization at the state level has continued since the 1990s. Though cannabis (from which marijuana and hashish are made) contains more than 400 different chemicals, THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) is responsible for marijuana’s psychoactive effects. Interestingly, cannabis varieties grown today contain far more potent THC levels (as much as 30 – 40 times) than was the case 40 years ago.


Cocaine is derived from coca leaves mostly from South American countries. Ingestion stimulates the brain to produce a euphoria that is highly addictive. While the number of users has dropped since the turn of this century, the amount of cocaine consumed in the US has not proportionately declined.

Amphetamines are prescribed to treat conditions such as obesity, narcolepsy, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Fueled mostly by easy manufacture of methamphetamines in amateur laboratories, abuse increased in the late 1980s and, since 2005, stores selling over-the-counter products containing amphetamines (such as ephedrine and pseudoephedrine that are found in common cold medicines) must keep these products behind the counter or in a locked cabinet, and have consumers show identification prior to purchase. Methamphetamines, predominantly white crystalline drugs in pill form, produce a false sense of confidence and energy. By the turn of this century, amphetamine abusers outnumbered cocaine abusers 2 to 1.

Khat is an evergreen shrub native to East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula that has stimulant-like properties. Its two active ingredients include cathine and cathinone. Bath Salts, which have been in the news quite a bit in recent years, are derived from cathinone.


Barbiturates are central nervous system depressants used as sedatives, anesthetics, and anticonvulsants. Barbiturates are addictive that can also bring about life-threatening withdrawal symptoms. 

Benzodiazepines are prescribed to sedate, relieve muscle spasms, and treat seizures.  Since the 1970s, abuse has been high.  Rohypnol (flunitrazepam) is a benzodiazepine that is commonly referred to as a “date rape” drug due to its high potency and propensity to cause amnesia. Rohypnol is not approved for manufacture or sale in the US, but it is prescribed to treat insomnia outside the US.


Morphine is a naturally occurring opioid derived from resin of poppy plants, and is one of the most effective drugs for treating severe pain. Morphine is also processed into other opioids, including Codeine (a less potent opioid). Highly addictive, heroin is derived from morphine, and its use has been steadily increasing in recent years.

Prescription painkillers are also opioids that are generally two to eight times more potent than morphine. Most also stimulate portions of the brain associated with pleasure. Consequently, in addition to blocking pain, a “high” is produced. Commonly abused prescription painkillers include Oxycodone, Oxymorphone, Hydrocodone, Hydromorphone, Propoxyphene, Fentanyl, and Meperidine. Methadone, another opioid used primarily to treat heroin and other opioid addictions, can also become addictive.

Ketamine was developed for initiating and maintaining anesthesia, but has also been used as an antidepressant, a sedative, and for treating other ailments. It induces a trance-like state that distorts perception of sight and sound, and makes the user feel disconnected from pain and their environment. It has also been used to facilitate sexual assault.


MDMA (Ecstasy) is manufactured in amateur labs around the world, and is used mainly by young adults as a “club drug”.  Though a hallucinogen, it can also act as a stimulant since it’s derived from amphetamine. MDMA produces an energizing effect with time and perception distortions. In addition to MDMA, Ecstasy tablets can contain other substances, such as cocaine and ketamine.

Synthetic marijuana (referred to as “K2” and “Spice”) is a mixture of plant material that is sprayed with synthetic compounds chemically similar to THC. Unless employers are specifically testing for synthetic marijuana, however, standard testing panels used today that include marijuana/THC testing, will not detect synthetic marijuana use.

To learn more about drug testing as part of the background checking process, download our on-demand webinar: HR in the Stoned Age: Employer Considerations for Drug Testing in 2015.

In this webinar, you will learn about:

  • Substances that are most commonly abused in America today
  • How to improve your ability to identify substance abusers before you hire
  • How to fight substance abuse in the workplace after the initial pre-employment drug test

This publication is for informational purposes only and nothing contained in it should be construed as legal advice. We expressly disclaim any warranty or responsibility for damages arising out this information. We encourage you to consult with legal counsel regarding your specific needs. We do not undertake any duty to update previously posted materials.