A Comprehensive Look at Probation Drug Testing

A Comprehensive Look at Probation Drug Testing

Drug testing has become widespread because of a spike in drug use and the opioid crisis. The most common form of drug testing is probation drug testing. Convicted drug offenders often have to take random drug tests. That’s because probation officers have to ensure they abide by the law.

Likewise, drug testing is quite common in the workplace nowadays. Employers drug test their employees to ensure productivity. Also, some jobs call for total sobriety — especially if public safety depends on it.

Even though it might seem like a nuisance, employee drug testing has many benefits. Those who work in fields like public transport or the government sector must be sober on the job. The well-being and safety of the general public depend on them staying alert at all times.

In this article, we’ll explain the difference between probation and employee drug testing. We’ll also cover different drug testing methods. Further, we’ll analyze how effective those tests are.

What is probation drug testing?

Convicted drug users can serve their sentences on probation. That’s an option in most criminal justice systems. Probation means supervised release as an alternative to serving time in jail. While on probation, convicts are subject to random drug tests. They also must abide by other laws to avoid serving their sentence in prison.

Usually, probation drug testing is court-ordered and enforced by a probation officer. Some courts use a random color code system. First, every probationer gets a color. Once they get their color, they have to call into the probation center every day. When they do, they will hear a pre-recorded message telling them when they have to get tested. If they hear their color, they must report to a drug test administration center for testing.

Otherwise, probationers can choose a drug testing facility themselves. Regardless, random probation drug testing is an effective way to supervise offenders. It reduces the chances for offenders to repeat their offenses.

What is employee drug testing?

In the US, federal laws don’t forbid workplace drug testing. But, individual states can impose regulations that restrict it.

In general, private companies can randomly drug test their employees. It’s not uncommon for companies to demand job applicants get tested. This is particularly common in areas where people’s lives are at stake. That’s why employee drug testing is common in the transport and government sectors.

For example, Florida allows private companies to test their employees and job applicants. If an applicant refuses a drug test, the employer may use the refusal as the basis for not hiring. As for employees, companies may carry out drug tests on reasonable suspicion. They also reserve the right to fire employees who test positive for drugs.

Is employee drug testing right?

The American economy loses more than $740 billion a year due to drug abuse according to American Addiction Centers. Employees that use drugs have lower work productivity. Likewise, drug abuse causes medical expenses to rise. Crime-related expenses contribute to that annual economic loss, as well.

So, is employee drug testing right and is it effective? It is depending on the field of work. Regular drug testing of employees can make a huge difference.

Let’s take airline pilots, for example. We, as passengers, expect pilots to be in perfect medical shape. We expect airlines to screen all pilots before they enter the cockpit. That’s because our lives and safety depend on their health and mental abilities. A pilot under the influence of drugs alone can kill hundreds of people.

As a result, all pilots are subject to random drug tests. It’s just part of the job. In general, public transport is a field of work that requires drug testing of employees.

Surprisingly, it’s not common for surgeons or physicians to undergo drug tests. For some people, that is alarming because statistics show physicians do abuse drugs. The Psychiatric Clinics of North America states that 1 in 10 physicians in America struggles with substance abuse. There are many reasons why they do it. But, the most common ones include self-medication from stress, exhaustion, and guilt.

On the other side, if the physician’s abilities seem impaired, a drug test might be necessary.

In general, doctors don’t have to get tested, but pre-employment screening is common. That’s especially true for nurses and other medical staff.

Drug testing methods explained

There are a couple of different methods to check if someone has drugs in their system. They are all quite similar, regardless of the type of test. The procedures are the same for both probation and employee drug testing.

Depending on the scope of the test, here is a list of substances that are most often tested:

  • alcohol
  • marijuana
  • amphetamines
  • cocaine
  • opiates
  • benzodiazepine
  • barbiturates
  • fentanyl

Urine samples are the most common method for detecting drugs in someone’s system. It’s also an easy and inexpensive way to perform a drug test. But, courts often order hair follicle and blood tests in cases of probation drug testing.

In addition, most drug test centers offer two types of tests — 5-panel drug test and 10-panel drug test. Both of these are typically done with a urine sample. But, hair follicle tests are becoming more and more common.

5-panel drug test

The 5-panel test is the most common. It can detect five of the most frequently abused drugs:

  • Marijuana
  • Cocaine
  • PCP (phencyclidine)
  • Opiates (heroin, codeine, morphine)
  • Amphetamines (ecstasy, methamphetamine)

This type of test is typically used for workplace drug testing. Sometimes it can include an alcohol test, as well.

10-panel drug test

The 10-panel drug test is an extension of the 5-panel test. For this test, it’s possible to use a hair follicle or blood, but the most common method is through urine. It’s used to screen for the five drugs in the 5-panel test and five more drugs:

  • Benzodiazepines
  • Barbiturate
  • Methadone
  • Propoxyphene
  • Methaqualone (Quaaludes, Mandrax)

Most often, police officers and medical staff have to pass this test before they get the job. Civil servants and government workers are also screened with this test. This is especially true if their job implies a responsibility for the safety of others.

Extended tests

The 5-panel and the 10-panel drug tests are the most common. But, there is another test that courts and companies use less often — 12-panel drug test. This test is an extension of the 10-panel test. It screens samples for extra opiates and painkillers. It can include other controlled substances, as well.

Some drug testing clinics even offer 17-panel drug tests. All extended tests use a urine specimen or a hair follicle sample.

Urine or hair follicles — which is more accurate?

Our bodies absorb various drugs differently. The detection window for some drugs is just a couple of days and for others even a month. Many factors contribute to the amount of time a drug stays in the body.

For example, if the drug is not so strong, it might be harder to detect. Also, drinking plenty of water before a drug test can dilute the sample. Drug dosage is another important factor. The person’s body type, general health, and amount of exercise can affect urine samples.

Urine testing

A urine sample can show traces of drugs even after they have worn off. That’s why urine samples are most commonly used for drug testing. As for the time frame, a urine test can reveal the presence of drugs a couple of days after intake. Marijuana stays in the system the longest — up to 30 days.

It’s important to note that urine tests can be tampered with. One of the most common ways of tampering with urine samples is substitution. It’s not uncommon for a person to switch their sample with another person’s sample. Some even try to cheat by using off-the-shelf synthetic urine.

It’s also possible to dilute a urine sample to mask the presence of drugs. Dilution occurs when a person drinks too much water before testing. Pouring plain water into the sample is another common form of cheating. But, these cheating methods are not 100% fool-proof. Lab testing technology is developing quickly. Machines can now detect even the slightest signs of tampering.

Urine adulteration is another popular method of tampering with samples. Adulteration occurs when a person pours other chemicals into the specimen. Common chemicals used to adulterate urine samples include soap, bleach, or salt.

Regardless, urine tests are extremely challenging to trick. Labs can now detect synthetic urine and signs of adulteration. A cheater will need a lot of luck to bypass modern drug testing technologies.

Hair testing

Hair follicle testing is much harder to cheat, as opposed to urine samples. Because a specialist takes the hair samples, the possibility of tampering is ruled out. That’s not the case with urine samples.

Secondly, there is virtually no way to dilute drug presence in a single hair follicle. Once the drug enters the blood, hair follicles absorb it right away. Moreover, the presence of drugs in a hair follicle remains for quite some time.

As for the detection time frame, drugs in hair follicles can stay for 90 days or even a year. That’s why the hair drug test is effective in detecting long-term drug use. Plus, hair from any part of the body can be used for testing — head, armpits or legs.

The follicle test is reliable. That’s why the courts prefer it over urine testing. The only way to pass a hair follicle test is to abstain from using drugs.

Blood and saliva samples

In some situations, urine or hair follicle drug tests aren’t ideal or won’t work. The alternative is a blood or saliva drug test. Depending on the situation, they can be more effective than urine or hair follicle tests.

Blood testing is appropriate when a person is on drugs at the time of the test. Since drugs are already in the blood, they are detectable within minutes. But, the detection window is brief — at most a couple of hours. As a comparison, urine samples can contain traces of drugs for several days.

The presence of drugs in saliva means that the drugs have entered the blood. For example, roadside testing for marijuana is commonly done with a saliva test. Saliva will show traces of marijuana because of exposure to smoke in the mouth. Similarly, saliva will also show if marijuana has entered the blood.

These methods are less common in probation drug testing.

Failing a drug test

Getting a positive result during probation drug testing can have serious consequences. That’s why it differs from failing an employee drug test. A convicted drug offender who tests positive for drugs on probation will go to prison. That’s a big price to pay. When it comes to probation drug testing, there is no leniency.

But, failing an employee drug test is somewhat different. There will be consequences, but not as serious as going to prison. The worst-case scenario is the termination of employment.

Pre-employment drug testing

Most companies have internal procedures that deal with employee drug testing. Those procedures must adhere to the law. Employee drug testing is not illegal on the national level. But, states have the right to put in place limits.

As a result, a common drug test companies require is a pre-employment drug test. Job applicants have to pass it before getting hired. If a candidate tests positive for drugs, the employer may reject their application on that basis.

Certain states such as New York don’t have laws on employee drug testing. That means there are no legal limits. But, New York City has prohibited drug testing of employees for marijuana use. Essentially, if an employee in New York fails a drug test, they can seek legal protection.

Employers need to know their state’s laws on employee drug testing. Job applicants can claim discrimination and invasion of privacy if forced to take pre-employment drug tests. So, employers need to be wary of that.

Workplace drug testing

Employers may order their employees to take regular or random drug tests. This especially applies to jobs that are safety-oriented. Some examples are transportation, aviation or government contractors working with defense agencies.

In general, employers have the right to prohibit drug use or test employees for drugs. But, again, regulations vary from state to state. Employers have the right to fire employees that test positive for drugs.

Besides, federal and state laws protect the rights of those with drug disorders. Employees who fail a drug test have the right to claim disability discrimination. If that happens, employers can get into legal trouble. To mitigate that problem, employers often have in place rehabilitation or treatment policies.

Obviously, the ultimate sanction for failing an employee drug test is getting fired. But, employers can work with their employees to help them overcome drug addictions. If they agree to work together, employees have to keep their employer updated on the progress.

Employee testing positive while on probation

What happens when an employee on probation fails an employee drug test? Does the employer alert the employee’s probation officer? Should the probationer get fired?

Generally, employees don’t have to report to the employer that they are on probation. But, this might be tricky if the employee has to check in with their probation office regularly. The employer might find out at some point. Also, companies can perform background checks on their employees or job applicants.

In some cases, the probationer might have to get a job to avoid going to prison. So, the employer will have to know. Either way, it’s difficult for employees to hide the fact they are on probation.

Employers rarely report probationers for failing employee drug tests. Yet, it’s possible if they have to because of laws and policies. This is especially true if the probationer had to get a job and remain sober as a condition. That would be like failing a test during regular probation drug testing. In that case, the employer might have to report the probationer to the authorities.


In conclusion, probation drug testing and employee drug testing have many similarities. But, the main difference is the punishment for failing a drug test.

Probation drug testing is an effective method to make sure convicted drug users abide by the law. Their freedom comes with conditions. It’s only logical. Convicted drug users who fail a random drug test will have to go to prison. There is little to no leniency in that regard.

On the other side, the punishment for failing an employee drug test is termination. Employers can refuse to hire someone if they fail a pre-employment drug test. Some states don’t allow employers to test employees for marijuana use. New York City is an example. That’s why companies need to know what the law says.

All in all, employee drug testing is not illegal but limits may apply. Employers should have in place policies on drug testing procedures. It’s also wise to check local laws on drug testing to make sure they abide by the law.

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