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2018 Drug Testing Change Could Alter Coast Guard Figures

On December 28, the U.S. Coast Guard announced that it had increased the random drug testing rate that marine employers are required to perform on inland and other vessel employees to 50 percent of covered crewmembers. The previous rate was 25 percent.

The bump-up was triggered according to statute by a positive “hit” rate of more than 1 percent in the latest reported drug testing numbers from 2017 in the Management Information Systems (MIS) database.

According to Carol Holmes, office manager for West KY Drug & Alcohol Screen Inc. of Paducah, Ky., the number of positive hits for synthetic opioids might edge higher in 2018.

In January 2018, the Coast Guard issued a marine notice informing mariners of changes to Department of Transportation (DOT) drug testing requirements. The new rule required employers to increase the range of substances they test for to cover hydrocodone, hydromorphone, oxymorphone and oxycodone. All are synthetic opioids that can be easily abused and that are prescribed for pain under various brand names.

According to DOT rules, positive hits are vetted by a medical review officer who can declare a positive result to be an official “negative” if it is shown that the tester had a valid prescription and was taking the substance as prescribed.

West KY Drug & Alcohol Screen specializes in the marine industry. According to Holmes, about 90 percent of its clients are maritime, with the rest consisting of other transportation sectors like truck drivers and air traffic controllers.

Among all substances tested by her company, said Holmes, the greatest number of positive “hits” of drug tests still come from marijuana. Between July 1 and December 28, 2018, for example, out of 2,492 specimens the company processed, 91 tested positive for some substance. Marijuana made up 40 of those hits and amphetamines provided 33. But hydrocodone provided 12 positive hits, while hydromorphone provided 16.

Although only taken from one company’s sample, those numbers give some indication of how the MIS’s 2018 figures might look. If the addition of synthetic opioids affects the positive hit rate, vessel operators could be burdened with the 50 percent testing rate for some time.

In response to a query, the American Waterways Operators said, “The towboat, tugboat and barge industry and its mariners and their families are not immune to opioid abuse and the serious epidemic that is gripping our nation. In light of the Coast Guard-confirmed drug positivity rate for the 2017 reporting period being greater than 1 percent, followed by the statutorily-required minimum random drug testing rate being set at 50 percent, an increase from 25 percent, AWO is monitoring this situation closely and is interested in reviewing the forthcoming data from the 2018 reporting period. It would be premature for AWO to speculate on the drug positivity rate before it has baseline data that includes the synthetic opioids that were added to the drug testing panel beginning in 2018.”

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