The Marijuana Breathalyzer Clearing the Air for Employers

Arizona joined the number of states legalizing recreational marijuana after voters made their voices heard last November. Sales began on January 22nd and as expected dispensaries had crowds lined up outside the door. Fifteen states allow adults to purchase or grow their own marijuana for recreational use. If your company operates in a state that has legalized marijuana, has it caused any problems for the HR department?

Disgruntled employees who believe marijuana should be removed from the company drug test may not be flooding your office. However, grumbling about the unfairness of it all can negatively affect workplace culture. And, unfortunately, negativity tends to spread.

Advocates for legalization are pressuring state governments to force employers to remove pot from pre-employment drug tests stating it infringes on the prospective employee’s right to privacy.

Some are heeding the advice.

For instance, Nevada and New York City both saw fit to pass laws last year prohibiting employers from testing for the drug on pre-employment tests. They left carve-outs in place for the safety-sensitive workforce in light of DOT regulations.

Another issue causing problems for business owners affects those whose companies operate in different states. It’s already posing problems for some and will affect companies across the nation if marijuana is removed from the federal government’s controlled substances list.

If that happens regulation gets left entirely up to the individual states. It will likely be impossible for companies operating in multiple states to have a uniform company-wide drug testing policy in place. And, of course, the task of keeping up with any changes in drug laws will be ongoing.

Current testing methods don’t match up

The problem could be alleviated if there was a test for current impairment. Currently, the three major types of employee drug tests—the urine, mouth swab, and hair drug tests—identify drug metabolites rather than the parent drug.

Still, some people believe that mouth swab tests identify if someone is high when the test is given.

That’s not the case.

“It’s true that the oral fluids test detects the majority of drugs minutes after use.” confirmed David Bell, CEO of USA Mobile Drug Testing. “However, there’s no way to differentiate between the parent drug or the metabolites that remain in the body after the point of impairment has passed—yet.”

With the exception of a blood test—which is very expensive and rarely used for employee drug testing—nothing specifically identifies the parent drug. Common drug tests detect drug metabolites that remain in the system after they pass through the metabolization process. The metabolites store themselves throughout the body while awaiting excretion.

The urine test is by far the most widely used drug test. It’s also the test that detects marijuana the longest. Marijuana metabolites store themselves in the fat cells—and we all know how hard it is to get rid of those! Because of that fact, the metabolites are excreted from the body more slowly than other drugs.

People that use the drug don’t think it’s fair that an employer can fire someone for drug use if they smoked—or ate—pot while off duty. Depending on how often the user partakes, though, drug tests yield positive results for days, weeks, and even months after discontinuing use.

We need a new test

Actually, some employers have been quietly removing marijuana from their test panels for some time now. Apparently, they’re having problems filling positions when an otherwise qualified applicant tests positive for marijuana on the pre-employment test.

Other employers feel that it’s better to be safe than sorry. Until there is a way to test for current impairment, employers are keeping marijuana on the test.


Marijuana use temporarily impairs thinking and motor skills.” said Bell, “So, of course, the user is at a higher risk of being involved in an accident. Moreover, it puts everyone around them at a higher risk as well. That’s unacceptable.”

We need access to a test that detects current impairment. Then, things would get much simpler in the realm encompassing the employee drug test and marijuana use.

Good news

A company in northern California has been working on a marijuana breathalyzer for almost a decade now.

After coming up with the idea, they partnered with the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), to conduct studies to see if it was possible. Scientists discovered that the amount of time that marijuana remains in the breath is the same amount of time that one would be under the influence of the drug—roughly two to three hours.

Developers validated this breakthrough breath measurement technology against gold-standard mass spectrometers. The breathalyzer is currently undergoing the final rounds of clinical testing.

You can expect it to be available on the market early this year.

The breathalyzer is promoted as being an inexpensive test to conduct—about $20 for each individual test cartridge. Moreover, the device will detect both marijuana and alcohol. It’s going to be a game-changer for the company drug test.

Having the capability to detect current impairment at the moment the test is given will solve many issues employers currently face. Moreover, there will be no way that an employee can argue the fact.

Would you like me to repeat that wonderful news?

Marijuana legalization and employee drug testing will no longer be an issue.

The ins and outs of marijuana testing have been pretty hazy since medical and recreational legalization came into the picture several years ago. HR departments and employers alike can finally sit back and take a deep, relaxing breath.

The marijuana breathalyzer should definitely clear the air.

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