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Collecting Drug Test Samples

Drug tests can be conducted on the following samples: urine, saliva, sweat and hair. Detection times vary depending on many factors, including drug potency, tolerance, hydration at the time of the test, method and frequency of drug use, body type and metabolism, and more.

What About Blood Tests?
Blood tests are uncommon due to the short detection period afforded, and because the cost is significantly higher. They are primarily limited to blood alcohol levels, one of two ways to test for the presence of alcohol. The other method of testing for alcohol is a “blow test,” also called a breath alcohol test (BAT). The differences among these samples are mostly based on detection times.


Detection Periods

  • Saliva has the shortest detection time, around one to three days after drug use.
  • Urine generally detects drugs for a period up to one week after drug use.
  • Hair generally detects drug use for a period up to 90 days and can provide a picture of the frequency of drug use — a much broader picture than the other two types of specimens offer.
  • Breath alcohol testing provides a result that reflects the moment in time in which the test is collected.


What Constitutes a “Positive” Drug Screen?
A drug screen is deemed positive if the presence of a drug is detected at a level higher than the predetermined cutoff level, AND, there is not a legitimate reason for the drug to be in the person’s system (i.e. the drug wasn’t prescribed for that specific individual).


Specimen Collection

In general, little training is needed for the collection of urine and saliva tests. Only in Department of Transportation-regulated industries is a certified specimen collector required, along with a certified lab. In most instances, the subject is instructed on how to collect the urine specimen, then asked to collect the specimen and return it to the handler, who will seal the cup and read the results. Saliva collection is relatively simple and is collected by the subject, witnessed by the collector.


Direct-read cups are generally negative or positive. However, in situations where a test comes back “non-negative,” meaning something has shown up, you may want to consider having a laboratory analysis to confirm the test results. The use of a lab analysis would be something you may establish as a practice in your drug-testing policy.


Employers can control costs by purchasing direct-read screening cups and collecting the specimen on-site. If the drug screen is negative, the test is concluded. If it returns non-negative, it is recommended that the specimen be sent to a lab that’s certified for drug testing. Some states mandate confirmation testing of presumptive positives. The benefit of sending the specimen to a lab for analysis is that the test result is definitive and not left up to interpretation. It provides an absolute answer as to which drugs and at what level are in the subject’s body. It is recommended that all drug screens collected for reasonable suspicion be sent out to a certified lab for analysis. This removes any appearance of employer bias in determining the results and minimizes challenges to the drug test. If a sample is sent to an outside lab for analysis, it should be from the original sample. Individuals should never be allowed to submit a new sample or “try again.”


Pros and Cons of Testing Methods






Fairly cheap, starting around $8.00

Fairly cheap, starting around $8.00

More costly, starting around $105.00

Detection period

5-7 days after last drug use

1-3 days after last drug use. In some cases, it can also detect current use.

Up to 90 days after last drug use. More positive drug screens result with this method, solely due to the extended detection period.

Cheating or adulteration of the test

Adulteration of “urine” tests is the most frequently attempted.

Less likely since the specimen collection is witnessed

Nearly impossible

Time involved for collection

Approximately 5 minutes or less, depending upon the subject’s ability to urinate. The test is concluded if subject cannot urinate within 2 hours.

Approximately 5 minutes

Approximately 5 minutes

Analysis options

Direct-read collection cups or lab analysis

Direct-read collection cups or lab analysis

Lab analysis

Turnaround time for results

Direct read, < 5 minutes.

Lab analysis involves review by a Medical Review Officer (MRO). MRO time varies from 1-7 days and is dependent upon the subject’s availability to speak with the MRO.

Direct read, < 5 minutes.

Lab analysis involves review by an MRO. MRO time varies from 1-7 days and is dependent upon the subject’s availability to speak with the MRO.

7-10 days for analysis and involves review by an MRO. MRO time varies from 1-7 days and is dependent upon the subject’s availability to speak with the MRO.


More About Drug Testing

This fact sheet is one of a series addressing the topic of drug testing. The other fact sheets in the series are:


Please review the other fact sheets for a broader understanding of employer drug-testing programs, their benefits and the development of a drug-testing policy.



© 2024 GuideOne Insurance. GuideOne® is the registered trademark of the GuideOne Insurance Company. All rights reserved. This material is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to give specific legal or risk management advice, nor are any suggested checklists or action plans intended to include or address all possible risk management exposures or solutions. You are encouraged to retain your own expert consultants and legal advisors in order to develop a risk management plan specific to your own activities.