I Use Medical Marijuana in Topical Form for Pain. Will I Test Positive on a Drug Test?

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August 14, 2014 - By Amanda Reiman, PhD MSW

Amanda Reiman, PhD, policy manager in California, holds a doctorate in Social Welfare and teaches classes on drug policy at the University of California-Berkeley.

 


Dear Doctors,

I have not smoked, vaporized or eaten any marijuana in about seven months but I continue to use a topical application for pain every few days or so. Am I likely to test positive for cannabis use in a urinalysis?

Thank you,
R.

Dear R.,

Thank you for your question. Topical cannabis applications can be extremely helpful for localized pain and inflammation. Many people like them because they work on contact and are non-psychoactive.

In theory, the same reason you can’t get high from rubbing them on your skin related is to why using topicals will not cause you to test positive in a drug test.

The THC level in topical products tends to be far lower than that in smokable or edible products. Add that to the fact that applying a topical to the skin only allows it to break the skin/muscular barrier, but not enter into the blood stream. I have not seen any reported cases of positive drug tests from topical applications and the research supports this.

However, depending where you live, there might also be transdermal patches on the market. These work similarly to nicotine patches and do contain components that allow the THC to break into the bloodstream and will cause intoxication and a positive drug test.

The topicals I am referring to only include lotions, balms, salves, and others products that contain cannabis and are rubbed on the skin.

Think about rubbing alcohol. You can rub it on various places on your body, but you will not feel intoxicated or have a BAC over the legal limit if you use it, even though it has a very high concentration of alcohol in it. However, remember that, like the transdermal patch, consuming marijuana in other ways will show up on a drug test.

Note: Since we have gotten a lot of questions about marijuana use and drug testing in general, below is an overview of the different types of drug tests and their relationship to marijuana use.

There are three main types of drug tests, urine, blood and hair tests, and saliva tests are becoming more common, especially for detecting marijuana smoking*. However, a urine test is the most commonly administered because of ease and cost.

In reality, the only thing that will ensure a clean drug test is abstaining from ingesting drugs, at least for a while, but each test is different in terms of how long you need to abstain and what the test can tell about your use history.

Urine tests can detect the THC in the fat cells, since some of it gets washed out with the urine. THC can reside in fat cells for up to 4 weeks, sometimes longer if the person consumes large amounts of marijuana.

In a blood tests, THC is usually eliminated from the blood within 48 hours, however, blood tests are costly and harder to administer so they are not used as often. Hair follicle tests work by detecting THC metabolites that have been passively diffused from the blood stream to the base of the hair follicle. Hair follicle tests can detect drug use within the past three months, including patterns of use. However, they often show false positives due to environmental pollution and other factors.

Drug tests can be administered in a discriminatory way that many times includes violations of privacy and an assumption of drug use leading to negative consequences. However, in today’s world, it is a part of many opportunities for employment, athletic participation and part of criminal justice sanctions.

Whether you support the idea of drug testing or not, the consequences of having a positive test can be far reaching and detrimental.

Sincerely,

Amanda Reiman, PhD.

*A less commonly used method is the sweat test in which a small square patch is worn on the body for an extended period of time and then tested. This test is usually reserved for those in prison, on probation/parole and military personnel.

Dr. Malik Burnett is a former surgeon and physician advocate. He also served as executive director of a medical marijuana nonprofit organization. Amanda Reiman, PhD, holds a doctorate in Social Welfare and teaches classes on drug policy at the University of California-Berkeley.

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