Will Cannabis Topicals Make You Fail A Drug Test?
Passing a drug test could mean the difference between having a job and being unemployed. With medicinal users caught between a rock and a hard place, will the use of cannabis topicals make you fail a drug screening for THC?
Cannabis topicals are an incredibly useful way to get localised pain relief and reduce inflammation. With the market expanding rapidly, their use is becoming significantly more widespread, even extending outside of traditional cannabis users.
While a large number of these topicals feature very little THC, many users are worried about the potential risks that accompany them and whether they could trigger a positive result on a drug test. These are just a couple of the challenges faced by patients using marijuana to manage pain in a society still largely unreceptive to their needs.
WHAT ARE TOPICALS?
“Topical” is a term used to describe products applied to the surface of the body. Balms, ointments, lotions, and salves are all included in this category. What makes them unique is that rather than being consumed orally, they are applied directly to the skin. For that reason, they are not taken as a recreational drug, but instead for exclusively therapeutic use.
With a localised application, sufferers can target specific areas of trouble, supporting mild pain relief and reducing inflammation. It is the nature in which they are absorbed through the skin, however, that has raised questions about their safety. Will users get high as a result? And furthermore, would that cause a positive reading on a drug test?
WILL TOPICALS GET YOU HIGH?
Topicals are infused with a variety of cannabinoids. The most common is CBD, which does not contain any of the psychoactive properties that cannabis is renowned for. Instead, it is utilised for its medicinal benefits. However, some topicals do contain other cannabinoids like THC and CBN. Given that THC is the key psychoactive component in cannabis that enables users to get high, it is understandable that some remain sceptical about the use of topicals.
The thing is, our skin acts as a protective barrier, which it does an excellent job at. To give you an example of how topicals cannot get you high, consider rubbing alcohol. Those who apply alcohol to a cut are still able to drive afterwards without fear of being over the legal limit. This is because it cannot be absorbed into the bloodstream through their skin. Cannabis topicals work on the same principle. The cannabinoids bind to receptors in our skin, muscle tissue, and nerves, but get absorbed before they could permeate through our skin into the bloodstream. THC only gets users high when it reaches our brains, something it cannot do through the surface of the skin.
CAN TOPICALS CAUSE USERS TO FAIL A DRUG TEST?
With topicals unable to get users high, it would stand to reason that it’s not possible to fail a drug screening as a result of their use. In principle, this is true; but there are some caveats. This study from 2017  confirmed that topicals containing THC did not cause a positive test in both blood and urine.
The caveat is transdermal patches. These work in the same way as a nicotine patch, providing patients with a strong dose of the active ingredient that is absorbed into the bloodstream through the skin. As such, use of THC-rich cannabis patches is likely to result in a failed drug test.
ALWAYS ERR ON THE SIDE OF CAUTION
Depending on the method of drug testing, cannabis can be detected in your body months after it was last smoked or ingested. A hair follicle test will retain trace elements of THC for up to three months. If you have switched to topicals as a means of receiving pain relief without smoking cannabis, then it’s worth establishing when you stopped to identify if you are at risk of failing a test.
We know topicals should not test positive, as long as transdermal cannabis patches are avoided, but you should always handle them with care regardless. Contact with your eyes or mouth may cause trace amounts of THC to enter your bloodstream and trigger a positive reading. It is all too easy to rub your eyes or bite your nails after applying a topical and put your chances of passing at risk. Using gloves and washing your hands thoroughly after applying medicated lotions will help to avoid the threat.
Despite marijuana's medicinal properties, passing a drug test is normally not possible for many users. Does this remain true for users of cannabis topicals?
I Use Medical Marijuana in Topical Form for Pain. Will I Test Positive on a Drug Test?
Amanda Reiman, PhD, holds a doctorate in Social Welfare and teaches classes on drug policy at the University of California-Berkeley.
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 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.
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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Amanda Reiman, PhD, 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.