A successful drug-free workplace program includes an important component: the ability for employers to screen for illicit substances. The 5-panel urine drug test offers an effective and affordable way to establish a legal means for enforcing company policies as part of their drug test policy.

What does a 5 panel drug test detect?

Each drug that is being screened for is called a panel. While there are tests with more panels, the 5 panel test is the most common. (Learn more in "Drug Test Types: 5, 7, and 12 Panel Urine Screening Differences and Reasons to Use".) A 5-panel drug test includes:

  1. THC (marijuana)
  2. Opiates
  3. PCP
  4. Cocaine
  5. Amphetamines

(Learn more in "Drug Abbreviations Used in Drug Testing".)

DOT testing and the 5 panel test

A standard 5-panel drug test is the most frequently-used screening method used by federal and private agencies, including the Department of Transportation (DOT). It is the routine test required by the U.S. government’s Mandatory Guidelines for Workplace Drug Testing. (Learn more in "8 Things Employers Should Know About DOT Drug and Alcohol Testing".) Unless an employer has a reason to screen for another specific drug, the 5-panel test is recommended.

5 Panel drug details

Let’s look at each of the panels to understand why they are the most commonly screened:

THC:

THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) is the psychoactive component of the marijuana (cannabis) plant. The dried flower buds can be smoked or mixed into baked goods and eaten. The high from THC lasts about two hours if smoked and four to six hours if consumed. Recently, some synthetic cannaboids have begun to show up on the market. (Learn more in "A Look at Synthetic Cannabinoids".)

THC does not have a strong dependence factor, yet remains classified as an illegal Schedule I drug (high potential for abuse and no medical indications) under the Controlled Substance Act of 1990. Effects of marijuana use include:

  • Impaired attention span, concentration, and short-term memory
  • Slowed reaction time
  • Decreased muscle strength and steadiness of the hand
  • Loss of coordination and balance
  • Lack of motivation

People typically use marijuana because it produces relaxation and a sense of well-being or euphoria. In 2017, eight states and the District of Columbia permit recreational use of marijuana, with California, Massachusetts, and Nevada implementing use after voter approval in the 2016 election. In addition, 85% of states have decriminalized marijuana; possession does not lead to an automatic arrest, jail sentence, or criminal record. (Learn more in "Medical Marijuana Law Differences and Contradictions".)

Medical marijuana is allowed in 29 states and the District of Columbia. It is used to treat a variety of conditions that don’t respond to traditional treatment, such as seizures or severe pain. However, if a workplace policy prohibits use of illegal substances or falls under DOT regulations, an employee can still face consequences if the THC panel shows positive results. (Learn more in "State Drug Testing Laws: What Should Employers Know?")

Opiates:

Opiates are used in medicine to treat pain. Naturally derived drugs from the opium poppy plant include morphine and codeine. Semi-synthetic and synthetic opiates are developed in laboratories and contain chemical structures not found in nature. Common semi-synthetic and synthetic opioids are Hydrocodone, Oxycodone, Hydromorphone, Fentanyl, and Methadone. Heroin is the illegal substance developed from morphine. It is a Schedule 1 drug. (Learn more in "Managing Opioids in the Workplace".)

After taking an opiate, the effects can last four to twelve hours:

  • Slowed breathing
  • Drowsiness/falling asleep
  • Noticeable euphoric behavior
  • Impaired thought process
  • Nausea and vomiting

Although heroin addiction is an obvious problem, employers face a more common challenge with prescription drug abuse. Sometimes people with chronic pain develop a growing tolerance to their prescription drugs and require larger doses. Other times, people simply take the drugs to get high; 75% of opioid abuse starts with taking medications that were prescribed for others. (Learn more in "Prescription Opioids and Safety Sensitive Work".)

PCP:

PCP (phencyclidine) is a hallucinogenic illicit drug for humans, classified as a Schedule 2 substance. It is legally used by veterinarians as an animal tranquilizer. PCP is called a dissociative drug because it causes the user to detach from reality from 4 to 48 hours.

Considered to be a dangerous drug, PCP has been associated with self-injury and suicide. Other effects of PCP include:

  • Delusions and hallucinations
  • Difficulty thinking
  • Paranoia and anxiety
  • Sense of being distant from the present environment
  • Loss of balance

Over time, problems with memory loss, speech, thought process, and mental stability develop. Because there is no medical indication for PCP, it is important to detect in a drug screen.

Cocaine:

Cocaine is a highly-addictive drug that is processed from the leaves of the South America coca plant into a white powder. Because it’s a natural stimulant, people use it to stay awake for extended periods or to improve performance. It’s also an appetite suppressant, leading to rapid weight loss. As a Schedule 2 drug, it has a high risk for abuse.

It can be snorted through the nose, rubbed onto the gums, dissolved and injected, or smoked. The effects are very short, usually less than 30 minutes if snorted and less than 10 minutes if smoked. Immediate effects include:

  • Increased energy and sense of happiness
  • Heightened sensitivity to sight, sound, and touch
  • Irritability
  • Paranoia

Long-term users experience loss of smell, bowel decay, malnourishment, and development of Parkinson’s disease. Because of the potential for serious physical and psychological dependence, cocaine is always part of a 5-panel drug screen.

Amphetamines:

Amphetamines are another type of stimulants, typically in the form of medications legally prescribed for treatment of ADHD (Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). Common names are Adderall, Concerta, and Ritalin. When monitored by a physician, amphetamines can help a patient become calm and able to focus on tasks. (Learn more in "A Look At Prescription Drug Abuse Statistics".)

When used recreationally, amphetamines are like cocaine; they increase wakefulness and energy. They are also used for weight loss. People crush the pills to snort or to mix with water before taking via injection. Because of the potential for abuse and dependence, amphetamines are Schedule 2 drugs.

A completely illegal and dangerous form of amphetamine is methamphetamine, called meth. It’s made in home laboratories, without any consistent strength or composition. Users have an instant feeling of euphoria that passes quickly, leaving a sense of craving. Doses must be frequently increased to achieve the high, leading to an overwhelming dependence.

Conclusion

Employers with a strong workplace drug program often rely on the 5 panel drug screen to reduce the health and safety risks of substance abuse and dependency. (Learn more in "The Importance of a Good Drug and Alcohol Policy in the Workplace".) The 5 panel drug test searches for some of the most commonly abused drugs and seeks to find those with high safety risks. Along with ADA-compliant policies, staff and supervisor training, and awareness efforts, companies can treat all employees fairly and respectfully while still following a strict dug and alcohol policy.