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More working Americans test positive for drugs

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It's not just housing prices and debt that are reaching record highs in this economy. Apparently, the workforce is, too.

New numbers from Quest Diagnostics, a clinical testing company based in Madison, New Jersey, show workplace tests are finding drug use at levels not seen in a decade.

Last year, 4.2 percent of drug tests conducted on employees or job applicants came back positive. It's the highest rate since 2004, when it was 4.5 percent.

For workers who are required to undergo drug tests -- including certain federal employees, pilots, bus drivers and oil pipeline workers -- the positive rate was 2 percent. For the general workforce, the rate was 4.9 percent.

"Illicit drugs -- cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamines -- are broadly up among all of the testing groups," said Barry Sample, Quest's senior director of science and technology. "This is the first time we have seen such a broad increase."

It's not immediately clear what these results say about the workforce as a whole: Quest is one of several drug testing-companies, and many employers, especially small ones, don't test workers or applicants for drug use. But Sample noted that government studies of drug use are in line with Quest's findings, with one difference: People who aren't subject to drug testing at work tend to report using drugs at higher rates.

"What's been consistent over the years is the self-reported rate among people who are not subject to drug testing is 40 percent to 60 percent higher," he said.

The numbers could reflect Americans' shifting attitudes toward drugs. Since 2012, 19 states have passed laws allowing marijuana to be used for medical or recreational purposes. That doesn't change the drug's federal classification as a Schedule I substance, considered the most dangerous. But businesses are already adapting. In Colorado, where marijuana has been broadly legal for five years, companies have been dropping it from drug tests.

Still, Quest's overall 4.2 percent positivity rate for last year is markedly lower than it was when the company issued its first report, back in 1988. Then, the rate was 13.6 percent.

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