When Drug Testing Becomes a Reward System

Urine Drug TestIt has been a mystery why some people seem to be unable to overcome drug addiction, but the mystery is slowly being unravelled. The impact of various drugs on brain functioning, and their ability to rewire message signalling to the rest of the body, are become less enigmatic with each study. As the research continues, a new question is being asked: Can addicts ever truly overcome their addiction? Are once-addicts always attracted to their drug of choice, and can the brain ever return to its original state? As researchers attempt to find answers, it is important to realise that there are people who do stop using drugs and are able to resist succumbing to lure of “getting high” again. For these people, random drug and alcohol testing in the workplace can become a component of a personal reward system. Each negative test reinforces success in the personal effort to stay away from drugs.

Which Came First: Brain Abnormality or Drug-Induced Changes

The basis for a recent study reported in Biological Psychiatry began with questions that went along these lines: Is a person using psychostimulants like cocaine naturally more impulsive, and the drugs further alter the brain reward circuits, increasing impulsiveness even more and eventually leading to addiction? Or do brain abnormalities exist before addiction in a way that the abnormalities, and not necessarily the drug effects on the brain, lead to addiction?1 Another way to state the problem is: Which came first, the abnormality or the drug-induced brain changes?

To answer the question, a group of medical researchers conducted a study at the Institute of Living at Hartford Hospital in which three groups of people performed the same tasks. One was a control group made up of healthy individuals who do not use drugs. The second group consisted of current cocaine users. The third group had members who had not used cocaine for an average of four years. A very brief description of the results is that people currently using cocaine and people who were once addicted to cocaine have elevated impulsivity measures compared to the control group. The measures were based on multiple brain regions associated with reward processing. The possible interpretation of the study results is that the people using cocaine or who once used cocaine had a pre-existing risk of developing addiction.2

Drug Testing Becomes a Pat on the Back

Another implication of this study is that some people who stop using cocaine will still retain some of their natural impulsivity, since it is not due entirely to the drug. If further studies support the findings, it means that addiction recovery is a process that lasts a lifetime. Workers who have ended drug abuse can benefit from reward systems that encourage continued drug abstinence as they continually work to overcome impulsive thinking that is a consequence of natural brain “wiring.”

For these employees, drug testing can become a “pat on the back” by reinforcing success. Each negative drug test is proof the worker has stayed off drugs and is doing a good job at managing their health. All too often, drug testing is viewed as a management tool for detecting people using drugs, but there is another way to look at it. Drug testing also shows who is not using drugs and these are the people to be congratulated. A negative drug test to a person who was once addicted is a very happy event.

As research studies continue to explore addiction, it is important for employers to accentuate the positive elements of workplace health and safety that are the ultimate targets of drug testing programs. CMM Technology (cmm.com.au) is an important business partner able to fill all employer requirements for drug and alcohol products.


  1. Krishna T. Patel, Michael C. Stevens, Shashwath A. Meda, Christine Muska, Andre D. Thomas, Marc N. Potenza, Godfrey D. Pearlson. Robust Changes in Reward Circuitry During Reward Loss in Current and Former Cocaine Users During Performance of a Monetary Incentive Delay Task. Biological Psychiatry, 2013; 74 (7): 529 DOI:10.1016/j.biopsych.2013.04.029.
  2. Elsevier (2013, September 23). Addiction: Can you ever really completely leave it behind?.ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 31, 2013, from http://bit.ly/18J3D4I.

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