One of the most common questions companies have about drug testing for illicit drugs is what is the difference between the types of test panels. This is followed closely by which test a company should use. The most common tests for controlled and prohibited substances are urine POCT (point of collection testing) drug testing. (Learn more in "POCT vs. Lab Testing: What is the Difference?") These tests are generally available in three types: 5 Panel, 7 Panel, and 12 Panel. There are differences in what these tests can detect, costs, how specimens are handled (such as split specimen collection) and regulatory issues, such as DOT testing. (Learn more in "DOT vs. Non DOT Testing: What's the Difference?")

Drug Test Type Summary

These tests are named after the number of drugs that they can detect. The 5 panel drug test is the “traditional” drug test that has been used since the late 1980s. This type of drug test focuses on that standard schedule 1 drugs of abuse and covers Amphetamines, Cocaine, Marijuana, Opiates, and Phencyclidine (PCP). The 12 panel drug test covers all of the schedule 1 drugs plus gives more sensitivity to methamphetamines and ecstasy. It also has three extra panels for opiates: Methadone, Oxycodone and Propoxyphene. Lastly, it covers prescription drugs in the Benzodiazepine and Barbiturate families. (Learn more in "A Look At Prescription Drug Abuse Statistics".) In the middle of the road is the 7 panel drug test. It covers all of the drugs in the traditional 5 panel drug test and adds Ecstasy to better comply with the new Canadian Model standards. It also includes Oxycodone to better identify synthetic opiates of concern as use is on the rise for this substance.

Substances Detected by the 5 Panel Drug Test

Several substances are detected by most tests but some can only be detected by more detailed tests. (Learn more in "Drug Abbreviations Used in Drug Testing")

  • Amphetamines
  • Cocaine
  • THC (Marijuana metabolite)
  • Opiates
  • PCP (phencyclidine)

Substances Detected by the 7 Panel Drug Test

  • Amphetamines
  • Cocaine
  • THC (Marijuana metabolite)
  • Opiates
  • PCP (phencyclidine)
  • MDMA (ecstasy)
  • OXY (Oxycodone)

Substances Detected by the 12 Panel Drug Test

  • Amphetamines
  • Cocaine
  • THC (Marijuana metabolite)
  • Opiates
  • PCP (phencyclidine)
  • MDMA (ecstasy)
  • OXY (Oxycodone)
  • Propoxyphene
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Barbiturates
  • Methadone
  • Methamphetamine

Which Drug Test a Company Should Choose

What should you choose for your company? This is a more difficult question and really depends on the company values, safety culture, and whether or not you fall under DOT rules. (Learn more in "8 Things Employers Should Know About DOT Drug and Alcohol Testing".) If the goal of drug testing is to meet outside requirements to gain access to a site, or as a requirement of a contract, then it is likely just a simple 5 panel drug test will suffice. (Learn more in "What drugs are part of a non-DOT 5 panel drug test?") If the company is concerned with drug abuse, but want to focus on illicit and/or street drugs (instead of prescription drug abuse), the 7 panel drug test is a great option. Although it bears noting that some states have begun considering marijuana for medical uses. (Learn more in "Medical Marijuana Law Differences and Contradictions".) It will test the 5 classes of schedule 1 drugs of abuse and also includes a specific test for MDMA so it has better sensitivity for Ecstasy. It also has a test for Oxycodone; though it is a commonly prescribed painkiller, it has become a very common street drug that is abused without a prescription.

If a company has a very strong safety culture and wants to not only test for schedule 1 drugs, but wants to determine if workers are under the influence of prescription drugs that might cause a safety concern, then the 12 panel drug test is the best option. This test, like the other two tests, can detect schedule 1 drugs and includes specific tests for MDMA and Methamphetamines in order to provide increased sensitivity of these drugs. It also has several panels for prescription drugs that are commonly abused and/or can cause serious side effects that are a safety concern even when used properly. These additional substances are Oxycodone, Propoxyphene, Benzodiazepines, Barbiturates, and Methadone. Oxycodone and Propoxyphene are prescription opiates used mainly as painkillers, but are also very common street drugs. Methadone is an opiate drug that is commonly used in the treatment of heroin or synthetic opiate addictions. It is an opiate drug but it can block the withdrawal symptoms of addicts so that they can be weaned off of the original drug of addiction. This being said it is a strong opiate and has side effects similar to other opiates that cause safety concerns. Lastly, the 12-panel test tests for Benzodiazepines and Barbiturates. These two drug classes are anti-anxiety/ sedative drugs that are among the most commonly prescribed medications and are commonly abused, resulting in safety concerns in certain worksites.

Whichever drug panel a company chooses they must make sure that it complies with any site access and regulatory requirements that they need to meet. They also need to ensure that their drug and alcohol policy addresses the drugs they will be testing for. (Learn more in "The Importance of a Good Drug and Alcohol Policy in the Workplace".)