Federal law is strict regarding drug testing for employees in the transportation industry. For other employers who want to perform a drug screening for other reasons, such as pre-employment, reasonable suspicion, post-accident, or random testing, the government offers little guidance. In these situations, employers can choose a non-DOT 5 Panel Drug Test. (Learn more in "DOT vs Non-DOT Testing: What's the Difference?".)

Drug Test Law

If an employer decides to do drug screening, there are Employment Law standards to follow. Employers must provide written policies for every employee and applicant (Learn more in "The Importance of a Good Drug and Alcohol Policy in the Workplace".) regarding:

  • Who receives drug testing?
  • Situations when testing will occur.
  • Consequences of a positive drug screen.

The non-DOT 5 Panel Test (also called a Standard 5 Panel Drug Screen) uses a urine sample for the screening. Urine samples are the most common way to test for drug use within the past 72 hours. They are fairly accurate and inexpensive, with results being returned as quickly as a few moments. (Learn more in "Drug Test Types: 5, 7, and 12 Panel Urine Screening Differences and Reasons to Use".)

Drugs Covered on the 5 Panel Test

Why consider a drug screen? Let’s look at the drugs included in a Standard 5 Panel (non-DOT) screening and why it may be important to know if the results are positive:

  1. Amphetamines: Amphetamines are addictive drugs that stimulate the central nervous system: the brain and the main nerves in the spinal cord. Invented in 1887, amphetamine wasn’t used as a medication until 1934, when it was sold as a decongestant. In World War II, pilots took amphetamine and methamphetamine (a similar substance) to stay awake on long missions. In the 1950’s they became popular with women for weight loss and as “pep pills” taken by students, athletes, and truck drivers.
  2. Cocaine metabolite: A metabolite is the product of a substance being naturally broken down, or metabolized, by the body. It doesn’t collect in cells and has a definite timeline, called a “half life” before being eliminated by the body. For cocaine, the metabolite is benzoylecgonine. Cocaine itself is metabolized by the liver within hours, leaving benzoylecgonine in the urine for 3-5 days.
  3. Marijuana metabolites: Marijuana (the dried portions of the cannabis plant) can be traced back 12,000 years; it was one of the world’s earliest cultivated crops in Asia. Ancient Greeks and Romans were familiar with it, followed by the Vikings, who used it for toothaches and pain during childbirth. During its long history, it has been used for both medical and spiritual purposes. Marijuana became a Schedule 1 drug in 1970, along with heroin, LSD, ecstasy, and peyote. Despite being approved for medical conditions, in 2016, it remains in the category of “no currently accepted medical use and high potential for abuse.” (Learn more in "Medical Marijuana Use and Concerns in the Workplace".)
  4. Opiates: Opiates come from the opium poppy plant and have been used for thousands of years for both medical and recreational purposes. Morphine is the most active substance and used as a painkiller during the Civil War, when many soldiers became addicted. Codeine can also come from the poppy or be synthesized; it is not as strong as morphine. Heroin was a scientific attempt to find a substitute for morphine. However, it is twice as powerful as morphine (in fact, it metabolizes to morphine) and has led to a serious modern epidemic. It has no other purpose than recreational use. (Learn more in "An Introduction to Opiates and Drug Testing".)
  5. Phencyclidine: Phencyclidine (PCP) is a drug of abuse. It was developed in the 1950’s as an anesthetic that was given intravenously. However, it caused confusion and hallucinations, so it was soon discontinued. It became popular as a street drug because of its dissociative properties that cause users to feel detached from their surroundings. They can experience auditory and visual hallucinations, numbness in arms and legs, slurred speech, paranoia, amnesia, and severe mood swings. PCP is also called Angel Dust, Wack, Hog, Lovely, Embalming Fluid, and Rocket Fuel.
Free Download: What Your Company's Drug and Alcohol Policy May Be Missing (and How to Get It Right)

Medical Uses and Effects of These Drugs

Today, amphetamines are mainly prescribed for treatment of Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy, although other drugs can be used. Although amphetamines can increase alertness, some side effects can influence employee performance: mood swings, insomnia, irritability, and anxiety. The risk of addiction with recreational use is also a serious consideration.

Before its addictive properties were known, cocaine was a popular ingredient in beverages and promoted by doctors such as Sigmund Freud. There are only a few medical uses for cocaine currently recognized. Physicians can apply cocaine to stop severe nosebleeds or to prevent pain before nose surgery or procedures. Oral surgeons can use it as anesthesia before dental work. However, cocaine is considered one of the most addictive drugs known because it acts directly on the brain. Long-term effects include depression, loss of memory, delusions, paranoia, agitation, and hallucinations.

The main metabolite is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). THC contains the chemicals that affect the brain, causing the high feeling. THC is stored in fat cells, so it remains detectable much longer than other drugs. Even an occasional user can’t eliminate the THC within a few days. For long-term marijuana users, there can be problems with memory, attention, and the ability to process information. If the marijuana is smoked, there is also a risk of lung damage and respiratory issues. (Learn more in "Medical Marijuana Use and Concerns in the Workplace".) While the federal government does not recognize any legal marijuana use, some states have begun legalizing use in certain cases. (Learn more in "Medical Marijuana Law Differences and Contradictions".)

Opiates are used in medicine for sedation and pain relief. As opiate painkillers, including oxycodone and hydrocodone, became sources of addiction, screening for inappropriate use has become common. Opiates have a very short half-life. In a urine screen, codeine will show for 1-2 days; morphine for 1-3 days; hydrocodone for 2-4 days. Employees who habitually use opioids will have a drop in job performance and attendance. They may nod off, lose weight, or have a change in appearance and behavior. Treatment is essential to prevent decline or death. (Learn more in "Prescription Opioids and Safety Sensitive Work".)

There are no medicinal purposes for PCP. It is addictive, leading to craving, seeking behavior, and psychological dependence. Depending on frequency of use and factors such as body weight, its use is detectable in urine for 1-7 days. Employees may have memory loss, difficulty with learning tasks, depression, suicidal thoughts, or violent behavior. Overdose is possible and treatment is necessary.

Why Drug Test?

With the option of learning if potential or current employees are taking illegal/illicit drugs, an employer can get a sense of relief and security regarding the workplace. Employees can feel safe when working together. There are also legal and insurance reasons to perform drug testing. (Learn more in "8 Things Employers Should Know About DOT Drug and Alcohol Testing".)

Laboratory Qualifications

One final note: When choosing a testing laboratory to perform laboratory testing drug screenings, be certain that the company has certifications from Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments of 1988 (CLIA-88), Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), and College of American Pathologists (CAP). Each state may also have separate requirements for licensing. (Learn more in "POCT vs. Lab Testing: What is the Difference?")