The only time I’ve been drug tested was when I was working the one-hour photo counter at a local drug store as a teen, not long after I discovered my love of weed. On the advice of older friends, I chugged water, stopped smoking for a week, and hoped for the best. Still, I could not shake the feeling that I was going to be found out.
I was an anxious wreck when I received a call confirming there was a problem. The packaging broke in transit to the lab and my urine was lost. I retook the test after two and a half weeks off of cannabis, passed, and kept my gig developing disposable camera divorcee thirst traps before the days of smartphones (high as hell, by the way), but I may not have been so lucky if it weren’t for my paranoia and spilled pee.
If I had to pass a drug test now, I wouldn’t have better odds. Possibly, worse. There are many ways to take a drug test today, but even more ways to fail it.
Take for instance one mother in Utah who was reportedly using legally prescribed CBD for a state-approved program but tested positive for THC, so the judge ordered regular drug testing and threatened to take her kids away. This story is all too common, especially when it comes to blood work done on black and Latina mothers, while in hospital to deliver their children.
“There are many ways to take a drug test today, but even more ways to fail it.”
Few cannabis and CBD consumers understand the science behind how drug tests work enough to ensure passing them, or—as cannabis becomes legal in medicinal and recreational forms—what recourse they have if they fail.
“Most commonly administered drug tests will test urine samples for the presence of specific drug metabolites of interest, depending on the organization or individual administering the test,” Dr. Ankush Patel, a physician and medical expert at Full Spectrum.
Urinalysis is the most common and cost effective, but blood, saliva, and hair tests all test for various metabolites, or what drugs turn into when they are broken down by enzymes in the liver. The test design depends on what drug the tester is looking for, whether it’s performance enhancing drugs for sports, or opiates for court, or weed for a part-time job, so most drug tests operate with some confirmation bias right out of the gate.
Cannabis tests specifically look for the metabolite THC-COOH, which can stay stored in the body’s fat cells for up to 100 days after use, depending on individual use, genetics, and metabolism. Tests can look for CBD metabolites, but this is rare and not yet standard. The more common issue people run into is when legal, hemp-derived CBD labeled as THC-free still contains trace amounts of THC. In the US, the legal THC allowance for hemp-derived CBD is 0.3%—enough for THC metabolites to show up on some tests, like that of the mother in Utah.
“CBD takes approximately up to one week to be fully eliminated from the body,” Patel says.
Since detoxifying depends at least partially on a person’s metabolism, there are things people can do to boost that through exercise, healthy eating habits, and adequate sleep. Despite evidence that papain, an enzyme found in papaya has also been found to lower THC metabolites, and zinc might decrease the likelihood of metabolite detection, there is no guaranteed way to pass a drug test other than stopping use for the adequate amount of time, Patel says.
Dr. Jordan Tishler, physician and cannabis specialist at Inhale MD, also cautions against shortcuts, particularly in the form sketchy over-the-counter products to dilute drug tests, which may be toxic. “I would strongly recommend against using any product designed to dupe such a test. They’re not proven and not regulated,” he warns. “Likely, they’re quite dangerous.”
Instead, Tishler recommends concerned cannabis users spend their money on an at-home urine test, which is similar to the tests most labs use, costs around $5, and is generally a small price to pay for reassurance.
To Patel and Tishler, the bigger issue with metabolite tests for cannabis is that they only prove if it’s been used within 100 days, rather than proving present intoxication. That system sufficed for testing when weed was illegal, but as laws change, the current system is increasingly out of date.
“That system sufficed for testing when weed was illegal, but as laws change, the current system is increasingly out of date.”
Until the drug testing industry catches up to the current cannabis climate, legal users still run the risk of retribution for getting high, even if it’s after work or just taking CBD after their kids go to sleep.
However, both experts agree that if medical use is legitimate and well documented, courts will usually come around—that is, if you can even afford a lawyer. For everyone else, the potential to be penalized for non-authorized and documented use when tested is real, even in states where it is legal.
Drug test results can hinder child custody, immigration, and the ability to compete in professional sports, but the main problem most recreational cannabis users face is with screenings is in relation to work. Employers can refuse to hire candidates for having anything from THC to nicotine in their systems and at-will employees have the right to decide if they need the paycheck badly enough to deal with it.
And if that seems unfair or discriminatory, that’s because it totally is. It sucks. But for now, the only way for the average weed smoker or CBD fan to get around drug tests is by abstaining for anywhere from one week to 100 days. Or by getting a different job.
“What is needed is a test that demonstrates current intoxication, which is still prohibited while driving,” Tishler says. “Such a test does not yet exist.”