Study Finds Racial Bias in Drug Testing

By Pat Anson, Editor

African-American patients on long-term opioid therapy are more likely to be drug tested by their doctors and significantly more likely to have their opioid prescriptions stopped if an illicit drug is detected, according to a new study.

Yale researchers analyzed the health records of more than 15,000 patients who received opioids from the Veterans Administration between 2000 and 2010. About half of the VA patients were white and half black.

Over 25 percent of the black patients had a urine drug test within the first six months of opioid treatment, compared to nearly 16% of whites.

When patients tested positive for either marijuana or cocaine, the vast majority – 90 percent -- continued to receive their opioid prescriptions. But there were significant differences in how patients were treated depending on their race.

Black patients that tested positive for marijuana were twice as likely as whites to have opioid therapy stopped and three times more likely to have opioids discontinued if cocaine was detected in their urine.

The findings, published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, are consistent with previous research showing disparities in how blacks and whites are treated by the healthcare system in general, and particularly when opioids are involved.


“There is no mandate to immediately stop a patient from taking prescription opioids if they test positive for illicit drugs,” said first author Julie Gaither, PhD, a pediatrics instructor at the Yale School of Medicine.

“It’s our feeling that without clear guidance, physicians are falling back on ingrained stereotypes, including racial stereotyping. When faced with evidence of illicit drug use, clinicians are more likely to discontinue opioids when a patient is black, even though research has shown that whites are the group at highest risk for overdose and death.”

A 2016 study of emergency room patients found that blacks were significantly less likely to get an opioid for abdominal pain than whites. Another study of white medical students and residents found that half had at least one false belief about black patients. Those that did were more likely to report lower pain ratings for black patients.

Drug Testing for Marijuana Not Recommended

The 2016 CDC opioid guideline encourages doctors to conduct urine drug tests before starting opioid therapy and at least annually after patients start taking the drugs. But the guideline also urges physicians not to test opioid patients for tetrahyrdocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana that makes people high.

Clinicians should not test for substances for which results would not affect patient management or for which implications for patient management are unclear. For example, experts noted that there might be uncertainty about the clinical implications of a positive urine drug test for tetrahyrdocannabinol (THC).” the guideline states.

"Clinicians should not dismiss patients from care based on a urine drug test result because this could constitute patient abandonment and could have adverse consequences for patient safety, potentially including the patient obtaining opioids from alternative sources and the clinician missing opportunities to facilitate treatment for substance use disorder."

Another factor to consider is the unreliability of urine drug tests. As PNN has reported, “point-of care” (POC) urine drug tests, the kind widely used in doctor’s offices, frequently giving false positive or false negative results for marijuana, cocaine and other drugs. 

A 2015 study found that 21% of POC tests for marijuana and 12% of those for cocaine produced a false positive result.