Can Second Hand Pot Smoke Make You Flunk Drug Tests?
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Can Second Hand Pot Smoke Make You Flunk Drug Tests?


If you’ve got a job that requires you to submit clean pee every so often in order to keep it, is it really okay to hang out with your peeps when they fire up the bong?

According to a recent report by The Journal of Analytical Toxicology, the answer is a resounding “maybe” depending on a number of factors, such as the strength of the weed they’re smoking, how well ventilated the room is and how soon after you’re going to be asked to piss in a cup. And while you’re probably okay at a wide open party where people are smoking weed, you might want to skip that four-hour cruise in a smart car while your friends are smoking bubonic chronic with the windows rolled up, especially if you’re going to be taking the physical for that Homeland Security job the next day.

Investigators at John Hopkins University in Baltimore placed six non-smokers with six “experienced cannabis users” in a sealed chamber and conducted three sessions. In the first experiment, the users smoked joints with a 5.3 percent THC level for 60 minutes. In the second session, the THC level was more than doubled to 11.3 percent, and in the third session, the pot was just as strong but the chamber was ventilated during the toke fest. The non-smokers then gave urine samples at intervals of up to 34 hours to determine if they were able to pass a common workplace urine test for the presence of the metabolite (the product that remains after a drug is broken down by the body) carboxy-THC that employers screen for in those drug testing programs.

Not surprisingly, positive results were more likely with the stronger weed and the lack of ventilation, especially for the urine submitted just a few hours after the exposure. “These results demonstrate that extreme cannabis smoke exposure can produce positive urine tests at commonly utilized cutoff concentrations,” wrote the researchers. “However, positive tests are likely to be rare, limited to the hours immediately post-exposure, and occur only under environmental circumstances where exposure is obvious.”

The research is not new, and a quick Google search reveals that there were studies conducted in 1986 and published in Clinical Pharmacology & Therapeutics and again in 1993 by the same researcher (Dr. Edward J Cone, who was also involved in the 2014 study) that all reached the same conclusion—essentially that while you can most definitely test positive for pot in a urine test if you’re in close enough quarters for a long enough time to heavy concentrations of THC, most casual contact is probably not going to get you in trouble.

Of course it’s the “probably” part that those who are subjected to piss tests should be concerned about. Ask NFL players Josh Jordan of the Cleveland Browns and Will Hill of the New York Giants. After the players tested positive for weed in the spring, they were suspended without pay, with All-Pro receiver Jordan suspended for the entire 2014 NFL season and Hill for the first six games. Both players claimed the positive tests were due to second-hand exposure to weed, but both had also been suspended for violating the league’s substance abuse policy in the past. In addition, Jordan picked up a DWI in July, checked into a California rehab and is awaiting his hearing this month on that case. Hill, meanwhile, was waived by his team after the suspension was handed down.

Now most of us aren’t going to miss out on million dollar contracts or product endorsements like Hill and Jordan if we flunk a piss test for weed, but losing a job or violating parole or probation because you choose to hang out with people who are actively smoking weed might not be such a great idea, especially if you’re in recovery. And I speak from experience.

I was mandated to AA in 2003 for a drunk driving conviction (for which I will be ever grateful to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for, because I finally got sober). Because I had a prior drug charge stemming from a DUI arrest 25 years earlier, I was also subject to drug screenings. At about 10 months clean, I came in for my scheduled appointment with my PO and he asked me to piss in a cup. “No problem,” I thought, and handed the sample to him, secure in the knowledge that I hadn’t gotten stoned for all that time.

“You been smoking a little weed, Johnny?” he asked me. “You tested positive.”

I was horrified. I hadn’t, but then I remembered. Two days earlier I had gone to the rehearsal space that my band practiced in and copped a bag of weed off of a couple of chronic stoners for my friend. (I didn’t do everything right in my first year.) The room was full of smoke and I didn’t stay that long, but it was a tiny unventilated space and they always had killer shit.

“I didn’t,” I protested. “I swear. If I’m going to blow my sobriety, it’s going to be with booze and coke, not a fucking joint.” I was panicking, because if I violated my probation, I was going to have to do two weeks in a state-run rehab—sober.

Thankfully, I had a good relationship with my PO and he had seen me struggle to get sober (two failed detoxes during probation) and then turn it around. I’d dropped 40 pounds of boozehound fat and my eyes were clear. He must have believed me because he released me early from probation a few weeks later.

I don’t know if it was the second-hand smoke or just a false positive, but either way, it was a pretty fucking stupid thing to do, given the stakes. Not only should I have not risked the whole second-hand-smoke-positive-test thing, but a 30-year daily weed smoker really shouldn’t have been hanging out with bakeheads when I was still in early sobriety (never mind copping a bag) in the first place.

I guess it comes down to risk-reward. If you’re going to lose a job or violate probation or some other form of trouble will ensue if you flunk a urine test, it’s probably not a good idea to be around people smoking weed in an enclosed place. Luckily for me, the self-employed don’t have to take urines, so I can still enjoy the sweet smell of herb coming from my neighbor’s apartment without consequences.

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About Author

Johnny Plankton is the pseudonym for a freelance business and comedy writer/editor (and recovering alcoholic) who lives in Boston. He is also a grateful member of America’s largest alcohol recovery “cult” as well as Al-Anon.