5-Panel Drug Test: A Complete Guide for Employers

Jennifer Brozic
February 05, 2024
5 min read

Many employers include drug testing in their pre-employment screening process to help reduce on-the-job accidents and minimize organizational risk. A 5-panel drug test is a common screening employers may conduct to detect the use of certain prescription medications and illegal drugs.

In this article, we’ll look at what a 5-panel drug test screens for, what the results mean, important drug testing laws for employers, and more.

What is a 5-panel drug test?

A 5-panel drug test tests for five types of prescription and illegal drugs, and it’s one of the most common pre-employment drug screenings. Either a urine, blood, hair, or oral fluid (saliva) sample is collected from a job candidate or employee to complete a 5-panel drug test. 

Depending on relevant regulations and company policy, employers may choose between onsite and lab-based drug testing. Onsite tests typically use saliva or urine to complete the screening. Lab-based tests, where individuals visit a certified lab location to submit a testing sample, may use any type of sample listed above depending on the test you order.

Employers who hire for positions regulated by the Department of Transportation (DOT)—such as drivers who operate commercial motor vehicles (CMVs), flight crew members, and individuals performing railroad mechanical tests or inspections—are required to conduct 5-panel oral fluid or urine drug screenings for applicable employees. Other safety-sensitive or highly-regulated industries, such as healthcare or childcare, may also require 5-panel drug tests, and any employer may choose to use drug testing as part of a comprehensive background check program in compliance with local, state, and federal regulations.

Employers with a pre-employment drug screening program may work with a qualified background check provider, like Checkr, to conduct drug testing. A partner like Checkr helps you streamline the testing process, including easy scheduling for the candidate, and makes managing compliance at the local, state, and federal levels easier.

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What does a 5-panel drug screen test for?

Drug screenings test for metabolites, which are byproducts that a person’s body produces when they use drugs. A 5-panel drug screening detects whether metabolites from five types of drugs are present in a person’s system, including:

    • Amphetamines

    • Cannabinoids (THC)

    • Cocaine

    • Opiates

    • Phencyclidine (PCP)

Employers requiring more in-depth screenings may request a 7- or 10-panel drug test to detect evidence of additional substances. The more panels in a drug test, the more substances tested (each panel equals one substance).

As marijuana laws have shifted in some states and cities, it may no longer be legal for employers to test for marijuana use or use a positive THC test result to disqualify a candidate for employment, with some exceptions for certain roles. A qualified testing partner, like Checkr, may offer a 4-panel drug screen as an alternative to a 5-panel test for employers that need to comply with changing state or local laws

How far back does a 5-panel drug test go?

How far back a 5-panel drug test goes depends on various factors, including the type of test, drug, person’s metabolism, and frequency of drug use. For example, hair samples may show evidence of drug use that occurred up to 90 days ago, while a 5-panel urine drug test has a detection window of a few days to a month.

Here’s an overview of  5-panel drug test detection times.

    • Marijuana may be detectable in a hair sample for up to 90 days and in urine for up to 30 days. However, a blood test can only detect usage that occurred one to two days ago, and saliva has a 24-hour detection window.

    • Cocaine use that occurred up to 90 days ago may be detected in a hair sample. But it is typically detectable in urine for only two to four days and in saliva or blood for one to two days.

    • Amphetamines may be detected in a blood or saliva sample for 24 hours, in urine for two to three days, and in hair for up to 90 days.

    • Opioid use may be detectable in a hair sample for up to 90 days. A urine test will only detect use that occurred within the last three to four days, and a saliva or blood sample has a detection window of up to 24 hours.

    • PCP may be detected in hair for up to 90 days and in urine for seven to 14 days, depending on whether the person is a chronic user. It is detectable in saliva for up to three days, and in blood for one to four hours.

What shows up on a 5-panel drug test?

A 5-panel drug test will return one of three results for each panel (or substance tested)—positive, negative, or inconclusive.

    • Positive test results indicate that metabolites of the drug were detected in an amount above the testing threshold.

    • Negative test results indicate that metabolites of the drug weren’t detected or they were in amounts below the testing threshold.

    • Inconclusive test results mean neither a positive nor negative result could be detected.

When you work with a qualified drug testing partner, like Checkr, for pre-employment drug screenings, a Medical Review Officer (MRO) will review any non-negative 5-panel drug test results to verify results or suggest further testing. If a candidate believes the test produced a false positive, they may have the opportunity to speak with the MRO about their specific case, providing information such as their legally prescribed medications. If there are questions about the validity of the results, the MRO may order a confirmation test before providing the final results.

Why conduct 5-panel drug screens?

Employers may decide to conduct drug testing to comply with industry-specific laws and regulations, protect the safety of their workplace and the public, and verify employment eligibility. Here are a few key reasons why employers may conduct drug screenings: 

    • Confirm candidate eligibility. Certain industries are required by law to conduct drug tests on candidates and employees to determine employment eligibility, and your company policy may also establish a workplace drug testing program as part of a comprehensive background check program.

    • Promote a safe and productive work environment. Including drug screening in a pre-employment background check and on a recurring basis can help employers prevent on-the-job accidents, injuries, conflicts, absenteeism, and turnover due to illegal drug use.

    • Comply with DOT and state regulations. Employers regulated by the DOT and FMCSA must conduct mandatory drug and alcohol testing of workers in designated safety-sensitive positions. Many states have adopted DOT requirements for intrastate CMV drivers, as well, and may require drug testing for certain regulated positions in industries that involve trucking and transportation.

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5-panel drug test laws and regulations

Employers that use 5-panel drug tests as part of a background check program must maintain compliance with applicable federal, state, and local laws and regulations. Here’s a look at some of the most important pre-employment drug testing laws.

Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA)

Employers that work with a consumer reporting agency (CRA) to complete pre-employment drug screening must adhere to requirements set by a federal law called the FCRA. You must provide each candidate with written notice of your plan to conduct a background check and receive written permission from the candidate before beginning. Additionally, you must give each candidate a summary of their rights under the FCRA and follow the adverse action process if you choose not to move forward with an employment offer because of the results of a drug test or any other screening in the background check. See law.

Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988

The federal Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988 applies to any employer that receives federal contracts of $100,000 or more or federal grants of any amount. Under this Act, you must certify that you will provide a drug-free workplace by doing the following:

    • Creating a drug-free workplace statement.

    • Implementing a drug awareness program that provides employees with information about the dangers of using drugs on the job and help that’s available if someone needs treatment.

    • Ensuring employees know they are required to inform their employer within five days if they are convicted of a drug offense.

    • Informing the federal agency of violations under the Drug-Free Workplace Act.

    • Taking action against employees with drug convictions.

See law.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

Under the federal ADA, employers cannot refuse to hire, fire, or withhold a promotion because a candidate or employee has a history of substance abuse or is currently receiving treatment for substance abuse. Employers that administer workplace drug testing must follow the same testing guidelines for all employees. See law.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which is enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commision (EEOC), prohibits employers from discriminating against candidates based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. According to the EEOC’s guidelines, hiring policies that appear neutral can violate the law and may be deemed discriminatory if they disproportionately impact Title VII protected classes—even if the discrimination is not intentional. See law.

National Labor Relations Act of 1935

The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 applies if you employ unionized workers. You must reach a collective bargaining agreement with the union before implementing a drug testing program that would affect union workers. The agreement must include when testing will occur and what action will be taken if an employee has a positive drug test. See law.

Department of Transportation (DOT) drug testing regulations

The DOT mandates drug and alcohol testing for certain workers in safety-sensitive positions within the following organizations:

Applicable workers must undergo a 5-panel urine drug test or oral fluid test and a breath and saliva alcohol test as part of their pre-employment screening. Workers in positions regulated by the DOT, including self-employed individuals, contractors, and volunteers, may also be subject to reasonable suspicion, random, return-to-duty, follow-up, and post-accident drug and alcohol testing.

State laws

State laws regarding employment drug testing vary. Some states don’t have statewide employment drug testing laws, while others have laws that dictate when employers may conduct drug tests, how much notice they need to provide, and the type of lab that must be used. Others have voluntary drug testing laws employers are not required to follow but provide benefits to those that do.

For example, employers that adhere to Alabama’s voluntary drug testing law can qualify for a discount on workers’ compensation premiums. Alaska employers that meet the requirements of the state’s voluntary law can qualify for certain legal protections, including protection from liability that may arise for actions they take after a positive drug test.

As some states and cities have decriminalized marijuana use, they have changed their drug testing laws. For example, in New York, Nevada, and Philadelphia, it is illegal for employers to test for marijuana during an employment drug test. Other states, including Arizona, Delaware, Connecticut, Michigan, New Jersey, and Oklahoma, allow employers to test for marijuana but prohibit them from taking adverse action based on positive test results.

Because state laws are continuously evolving, it’s best to consult legal counsel if you have questions about the laws in your state.

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How much is a 5-panel drug test?

The cost of a 5-panel drug test depends on the collection method, how many tests you need, and whether it is a rapid onsite or lab-based test. Oral fluid tests are often the most cost-effective type of test, as they can be performed either onsite or in a laboratory setting. Onsite saliva testing can cost as little as $2.50 to $5 per test while pricing for lab-based testing may range from $70 to $100. You can also conduct onsite urine testing for around $5 to $7 per test, but keep in mind that the DOT doesn’t accept onsite tests for its compliance requirements. 

While prices for lab-based drug testing can vary widely, urine screening generally ranges from $40 to $70 per test. Lab-based hair and blood tests are the most expensive with prices ranging from $90 to $175 for tests using hair samples and $160 to $350 for blood tests.

You can manage your drug testing program in-house or find cost savings by partnering with a qualified background check provider, like Checkr. If you handle drug screenings internally, you should consider not only the cost of each test, but also the cost to administer them if they take place on site and the time it will take your team to schedule testing for each candidate and follow up with the lab for results.

When you partner with Checkr, scheduling and medical review are taken off your plate, streamlining the process and saving you valuable time while also lowering test costs. You can customize your drug testing packages based on location and position to align with your company’s drug policy while enabling compliance with applicable laws. All results are returned to your Checkr dashboard for easy review.

Frequently asked questions about 5-panel drug tests

Understanding how a 5-panel drug test works and what it tests for can help you decide if it’s the best option for your background check program. Here are a few commonly asked questions about these types of tests:

How long does a 5-panel drug test take?

Turnaround times for drug test results vary based on whether the test is conducted onsite or in a lab. Onsite testing may return results the same day, while lab-based testing typically takes two to five business days, including the time it takes for the candidate or employee to visit the lab. A positive screening may extend the time it takes to receive results for either on site or lab-based testing if the MRO determines that a confirmatory test is necessary.

What is the difference between 5-panel and 10-panel drug tests?

A 10-panel drug test screens for more substances than a 5-panel drug test. A 5-panel drug test tests for the use of amphetamines, cannabinoids (THC), cocaine, opiates, and phencyclidine (PCP). A 10-panel drug test screens for those five substances, plus five more: barbiturates, benzodiazepines, propoxyphene, methadone, and methaqualone (quaaludes).

How is a 5-panel drug test done?

The most common way to conduct a 5-panel drug screening is with a urine test. However, the test may also use a candidate’s blood, hair, or saliva. Testing can take place onsite or in a lab.

Onsite tests may be administered by employers at their workplace and involve collecting samples from candidates and either sending those samples to a lab or using them to complete an onsite rapid test. Lab-based tests require candidates to go to a lab where a sample of their saliva, blood, urine, hair, or sweat may be collected. Onsite tests provide same-day results, while lab-based results can take two to five business days. Both employers and candidates receive the test results when they are available.

What drugs are tested in a 5-panel drug screen?

A 5-panel drug screen tests for amphetamines, cannabinoids (THC), cocaine, opiates, and phencyclidine (PCP). In jurisdictions where testing for marijuana (THC) is prohibited, employers may choose to substitute a 5-panel test with a 4-panel test that tests for all of the drugs listed above except THC.

How sensitive is a 5-panel drug test?

The sensitivity of a 5-panel drug test depends on the collection method and amount of drugs or metabolites present. A hair sample can detect usage of all five types of drugs for up to 90 days. Other collection methods, including urine, blood, and saliva, can detect usage from a few days to several weeks ago. Higher amounts of drugs or metabolites are more likely to be detected on a drug screening, but cutoff levels for a positive result vary by employer.

Get a 5-panel drug test with Checkr

Employer drug testing programs can help promote safe work environments and minimize organizational risk. Partnering with a trusted background check provider, like Checkr, to conduct 5-panel drug tests helps employers streamline the drug testing and background check process, hire quicker, and get more accurate results. 

With Checkr, you can build a consistent drug testing program that facilitates compliance and meets your organization’s needs—and reduce the manual labor of scheduling and conducting pre-employment or recurring and random drug tests. In addition to 5-, 7-, and 10-panel drug screenings, we offer a 4-panel test for employers hiring in areas where testing for marijuana is prohibited. Make faster, smoother drug testing a part of your comprehensive background check program with our streamlined solutions, and get started now.

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Disclaimer

The resources provided here are for educational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice. We advise you to consult your own counsel if you have legal questions related to your specific practices and compliance with applicable laws.

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About the author

Jennifer writes about a variety of topics, including background checks, employee benefits, small business insurance, risk management, workplace culture, and more. Her work includes educational articles, blogs, e-books, white papers, and case studies.

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