5 Panel vs. 10 Panel vs. 15 Panel Drug Tests: All the Details Explained

Understand the difference!

If you are scheduled for a job interview, or if your company has a drug testing policy and you use marijuana frequently, there are plenty of reasons to be worried. Modern drug testing is extremely effective, and the reduced cost of a urinalysis means employers have no qualms about testing employees in situations where they are legally allowed to do so.

There has been an improvement in the attitudes of states and certain employers to marijuana use, however. For example, workers in the state of Maine don’t have to be concerned when they use weed outside of working hours; in February 2018, the state’s Labor Department removed cannabis from the list of substances that a company can test applicants for. A positive test is no longer considered enough proof that an employee is under the influence of marijuana at work.

After Proposition 64 was passed in California (which allowed weed to be used recreationally), it was hoped that the state would offer leeway on its strict drug testing laws in the workplace. However, pre-employment drug testing is still allowed if it is conducted in a “fair and consistent manner.” Incredibly, you can still be fired for testing positive for marijuana consumed during your leisure time in a state where it is legal recreationally!

As a result, potentially millions of employees who use weed away from their place of employment live in constant fear of being called in for a drug test. The most common form of testing is a urinalysis, which tests your urine for drugs. There are also different forms of urine drug test, and in this article, we look at 5-Panel, 10-Panel, and 15-Panel drug tests. As you’ll discover, the main differences between the three tests are the type of drug that is actually being tested for.

What is a 5-Panel Drug Test?

This is the most common form of urinalysis, and as the name suggests, it involves testing for the following five drugs:

  • Marijuana: More specifically, a 5-panel test looks for THC metabolites in the urine (THC-COOH). You are deemed to have failed the test if your urine’s reading is at 50 ng/ml or above.
  • Cocaine: Although this stimulant is far more dangerous than weed, it is only a Schedule 2 drug according to the Controlled Substance Act (weed is a Schedule 1 drug).
  • Amphetamine: You will normally find this drug in pills which are often crushed and snorted. It is a laboratory drug sometimes found in prescription medication such as Ritalin, but this form of drug includes methamphetamines, also known as crystal meth.
  • Opiates: They come from the opium poppy plant, as its base is used to create drugs such as heroin. A 5-Panel test will also look for codeine and morphine.
  • Phencyclidine: Also known as PCP, this synthetic chemical is created in labs and comes in either yellowish liquid or powder form.

You will find that a 5-panel screen is used for the majority of workplace drug tests. It is also the standard test used by the DOT, the federal government, and most private employers.

What is a 10-Panel Drug Test?

Once again, you can guess why this form of drug screening gets its name. As well as testing for the five drugs in a 5-panel, a 10-panel screen also checks for the following:

  • Barbiturates.
  • Propoxyphene.
  • Methaqualone (also known as Quaaludes).
  • Benzodiazepines (includes Xanax, Prozac, Lorazepam, Valium, etc).
  • Methadone.

As a 10-panel drug test isn’t a standard test, it is only used when employing people in specific sectors. A typical example is any profession where you must preserve the safety of others. Therefore, you can expect to take a 10-panel drug test if you are a medical professional, involved in law enforcement, or operating at a high level in a federal, state or local government.

What is a 15-Panel Drug Test?

A 15-panel drug test is an expanded version of the 10-panel drug test, and tests for an additional five substances:

  • Buprenorphine.
  • Oxycodone.
  • MDMA.
  • Meperidine.
  • Tramadol.

It is uncommon for employers to perform a 15-panel drug screen and, once again, is typically only reserved for individuals in specialized positions.

What Happens During a Drug Screen?

There is effectively no difference between the procedures used to perform a 5-panel, 10-panel, or 15-panel drug screen on an individual. If you are being tested for marijuana, don’t think you can fool the tester by drinking lots of water before the test, as an excessively diluted sample will cause suspicion and probably result in a retest.

The test itself could take place at your workplace or in a medical clinic. The procedure is conducted by a technician who will provide you with instructions throughout. Normally, the test occurs in a single-stall bathroom with a door that extends to the floor. It is also normal for there to be blue dye in the toilet water to prevent dilution of the sample.

Additional precautions taken by the technician may include:

  • Turning off tap water and securing other water sources.
  • Removing substances such as soap.
  • Inspecting the test site before collecting your sample.
  • Measuring your sample’s temperature after you have provided it.

You are given a special container and, once you have urinated into it, you simply put the lid on and give the sample to the technician.

Drug Test Results

At the lab, an immunoassay screen is performed. It is a fast and accurate test that uses antibodies on test strips to ascertain whether or not there was drug use. The results can depend on the number of drugs tested for. All three tests will reveal marijuana use, but a 5-panel won’t catch methadone, and a 10-panel won’t find MDMA. If the test finds nothing, you’ll get a negative result which means you can breathe a sigh of relief.

If a substance is detected, the test is classified as positive. However, this is not the end of the story. Your test could be a:

  • False positive: A testing error can cause an incorrect result.
  • True positive: The test correctly identifies the use of certain substances.
  • True positive, but with medically acceptable documentation: Depending on the state you live in, if you can provide the requisite medical documents which prove that you need marijuana for a medical reason, it could save your job.

In any event of a positive test, all three of the above results must be confirmed with a gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS) test which is more sensitive and accurate. This test finds specific substances by the metabolite, and if you fail this test, there is generally no recourse unless the Medical Review Officer (MRO) can find fault in the procedure.

If you test negative or have a valid explanation for a positive test, you can rest easy. If there is nothing you can use to defend yourself against a positive, it is up to your employer to decide what happens next.

Drug Screen Limitations

Although a drug screen can tell if you use a substance banned by your employer, it doesn’t prove that you use the drug while on duty. This is an issue that has caused numerous lawsuits in the United States with regards to marijuana. In 2017, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled in favor of Cristina Barbuto, a woman who was fired after her first day on the job because she tested positive for marijuana on a pre-employment drug screening.

However, Barbuto successfully argued that her certificate for medical marijuana should have protected her from contract termination. The ruling was the end of a two-year battle for Barbuto, and a kick in the teeth for Advantage Sales & Marketing, the company that fired her, as well as other firms looking to fire staff members for failing marijuana tests when they have valid medical certificates.

Another problem – even for 5-panel, 10-panel, and 15-panel drug screens – is that they fail to test for a complete array of drugs. For example, even the 15-panel screen is unable to detect psychedelic drugs such as LSD, DMT, psilocybin mushrooms, peyote, and mescaline. Also, none of these tests can detect kratom, an herbal extract that offers similar effects to opioids.

Final Thoughts: 5 Panel vs. 10 Panel vs. 15 Panel Drug Tests

In most cases of employee drug testing, you will be subject to a 5-panel drug screen. No matter what test you take, however, it WILL look for THC metabolites. Therefore, if you are a regular marijuana user and live in a state where employers are legally allowed to fire anyone who tests positive for weed, you have to find a way to detox as soon as possible. There are a huge amount of detox ‘drinks’ on the market which claim to help you pass a drug test, but these are hit and miss, which is why we can’t explicitly recommend them.