CBD Won’t Get You High, But It Could Mean You Fail a Drug Test

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Dec 6, 2019

When you buy a CBD product — let’s say CBD oil tincture — that’s marketed as “THC free,” as many CBD products are, the last thing you’re probably worried about is failing a drug test.

After all, drug tests look for marijuana use, not CBD. Right? Well, it’s actually not so simple.

Despite its legality, non-intoxicating cannabidiol (CBD) products — even those marketed as “THC free” — can actually cause consumers to fail drug tests. False-positive drug screen results have serious consequences for the tens of millions of Americans who must pass drug tests in the workplace, in the military, for accessing unemployment benefits or even competing in athletic events.

False positives are also a problem for the employers who do testing: disqualifying candidates who may have hard to find skills; bad PR and even a lawsuit.

Thanks to the federal legalization of hemp, CBD products are widely available at mainstream retailers such as CVS, Kroger, Walgreens and others. An estimated 25% of Americans have given CBD a try, and approximately 1 in 7 adults said they use CBD products regularly.

It’s time we re-examine the common practice of drug testing that can penalize someone so severely for using a federally legal substance.

Testing can be imprecise

There is no comprehensive federal law that regulates drug testing in the private sector. As a result, testing methods and state requirements vary widely. Different types of drug tests have different detection thresholds; over-the-counter medications, supplements and even foods or beverages can cause someone to fail a drug test. Some estimates indicate 5% to 10% of all drug tests produce a false-positive result.

Urinalysis, the most common method of drug testing, is also considered the least accurate method. Urine drug tests are usually done via immunoassay (also known as “office collection,” where the analysis is performed on-site). Immunoassays are less sophisticated than sending samples to a laboratory for testing, but are widely used because they’re fast, cheap and easy to administer. A Mayo Clinic guide for clinicians acknowledged that “the main disadvantage of immunoassays is obtaining false-positive results.”

There’s no reliable data for CBD false-positives, though Forbes quoted a testing lab executive estimating 10% of regular CBD users can test positive for THC.

Fired for CBD use

Drug tests are not designed to detect CBD, but CBD products can trigger false positive results because of the way drug tests work. Urine tests don’t actually detect drugs in the system. They detect metabolites, the compounds the body creates as it processes a substance. Urine tests typically screen for the metabolites of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive and federally illegal cannabinoid found in cannabis and, to a lesser degree, in hemp plants.

So while hemp-derived CBD in and of itself is legal, full-spectrum CBD products often contain trace amounts of THC — up to 0.3% by weight is legal. Unfortunately, many of these products are marketed as “THC-free,” which is misleading. Many consumers don’t realize that over a period of use, the small amounts of THC can accumulate. The human body eliminates heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine metabolites in just a few days, but THC metabolites can remain detectable for weeks.

False positives can have very real results. A recent Consumer Reports article documented three instances of CBD product consumers who were fired after failing drug tests — and that’s indicative of a much larger problem. Just this past September, a 72-year-old Washington man who was taking CBD oil for glaucoma and arthritis tested positive for THC and lost his job. NASA has warned its employees that using CBD products could get them fired. And The New York Times in October explained how a common drug testing method easily can return false-positives.

What to do

Some argue that anyone who’s regularly drug tested must avoid CBD altogether. But what if your CBD medicine is prescribed by a doctor (as is required in states like Texas and many others) for serious conditions like epilepsy or multiple sclerosis? An Arizona woman who was fired after a false positive was taking it for seizures and migraines. Anecdotes abound, but the truth is that the vast majority of those who use CBD take it for pain.

As a veteran, I know active-duty service members who could benefit from having CBD as an option to address chronic pain, PTSD or addiction issues, but because of drug testing, their options are pretty much limited to prescription opioids and benzodiazepines — or nothing at all.

Some states and zero-tolerance companies are stepping up and revising their policies. Others say that in the wake of widespread cannabis and hemp legalization, we should stop testing for cannabinoids altogether. One thing remains clear: Testing that could result in serious consequences — from losing a job to losing parental rights – should not be this unreliable.

HR professionals and employers need to ensure that the lab they use for their drug testing is aware of the potential false-positives CBD can produce and that the testing method can recognize the difference. Even then, employers will still need to account for their employees and candidates who use CBD to treat medical conditions and may inadvertently have used a THC-free product that wasn’t