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Drawing The Line On Drug Testing

The case for testing employees, students and those applying for government benefits for drug use seems obvious. Drug testing can deter people from using illegal drugs. It can catch people who are breaking the law. And it can help detect those who are using drugs and make sure they are treated and/or punished.

That logic has encouraged the massive expansion of drug testing throughout the United States—first of employees, then of athletes, and now of students and many other categories of Americans. Tens of millions of Americans now urinate into jars or pluck a few hairs so their employers or school authorities can determine whether they have consumed a detectable drug in the past few days or weeks. Many now do it without thinking twice. In some respects, drug testing is rapidly becoming as much a national tradition as Mom and apple pie.

That is unfortunate because in most cases, drug testing represents a snake-oil solution for both real and non-existent drug problems. The real push for more and more drug testing in our society stems not from any scientific evidence or cost-benefit analysis but from a multi-billion-dollar industry that is making a fortune from testing millions of Americans who either do not use drugs or do not have drug problems.

The Conclusions of Science

Go to any conference of human-resources executives, and the aisles are full of salesmen touting the benefits of drug testing and selling the latest in drug-detection systems. Some are retired drug warriors pursuing their old campaigns with new and more profitable tactics. Missing from the aisles, though, are people who might note that drug testing is a costly and counterproductive program for most employers but who are not present because they have no product to sell apart from the truth.

In 1994, a committee of the National Academy of Sciences—the country’s oldest and most prestigious scientific body—compiled and analyzed most of the research on drug testing in a report titled “Under the Influence? Drugs and the American Work Force.” The committee of distinguished medical, legal and business experts concluded that “the data … do not provide clear evidence of the deleterious effects of drugs other than alcohol on safety and other job-performance indicators.”

It urged companies “to be cautious in making decisions” because “there are very few empirically based conclusions that may be reached concerning the effectiveness of drug-testing programs.”

The report should have given many companies pause, but few knew about it. The academy sees its job as one of assessing the research, not promoting its findings. No one bothered to send copies of “Under the Influence” to every chief executive officer in America, or to make copies available at conferences of human-resources executives—which is what the drug-testing profiteers would have done if the report had been favorable to their product.

Now, finally, a recent report by the ACLU entitled “Drug Testing: A Bad Investment” contains a summary of that report, and the arguments for and against drug testing Every CEO and human-resources executive should read it, for both insight and profit.

What is wrong with drug testing?

First, it is both over-inclusive and under-inclusive. It is over-inclusive in that it tests millions in order to detect tens of thousands, and that among the tens of thousands most are marijuana users who do not really have a drug problem. But it is also under-inclusive in that drug testing so easily becomes a surrogate for good management and distracts attention from the many other factors—sleep deprivation, emotional distress, physical illness, poor morale and so on—that can impair an employee’s performance.

A Litany of Testing-Related Problems

Most positive drug tests reveal marijuana use—both because that is by far the most commonly used illicit drug in America and because marijuana remains detectable for much longer than most other drugs. It is not clear why employers want to test for marijuana when most evidence indicates that marijuana smokers are no different than non-marijuana smokers.

One can understand employers wanting to identify those who are impaired in the workplace, and thus potentially a danger to themselves and others. But most drug testing reveals much more about what one consumed last night or over the weekend and little about whether one is impaired at work.

It also creates a bizarre incentive: If one wants to get inebriated on a Friday night and still pass aar i urine test Monday, smoking a joint would be foolish. Cocaine and alcohol would represent the “safer” choices of intoxicants because alcohol is “legal” and cocaine cannot be detected in the body as long.

A friend of mine runs a business with a few dozen employees who spend much of their time on the road, away from their families, working long hours at manual labor and then unwinding in miscellaneous motels at night. The law requires that he drug test any employee with a commercial driver’s license. My friend’s greatest concern is alcohol, a drug that is far more problematic than marijuana when it comes to impaired driving, anti-social behavior, dependence and next-day impairment. But his employees know that smoking a joint Monday night is more risky to their job security than getting drunk Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday if a drug test is awaiting when they get home Friday. Dumb law, says my friend.

There are other problems, too:

  • The “false” positives that result from poppy-seed bagels, edible hemp products and all sorts of over-the-counter medications;
  • The expensive farce of offering “drug treatment” to responsible marijuana users whose only problem is an invasive employer; ·
  • The job applicants and opportunities foregone because many worthy people simply refuse to take jobs that require drug testing; ·
  • The embarrassment of urinating under the watchful eye of a stranger; ·
  • The diminution of trust implicit in any drug-testing relationship between employer and employee; ·
  • And the waste of hundreds of millions of dollars on ineffective testing programs—and much more.

When Will We Say, “Enough”

But the greatest problem is the proverbial slippery slope of drug testing. We started with military personnel and airline pilots. Now we are testing millions of civilians who work at desk jobs, and the testing industry has its sights on our children. It is the same old logic, driven by shameless profiteering.

I just wonder when and where people will finally say enough. When drug testing starts to include nicotine products? Or undesirable food products? How about when company urinals and toilets are automated to more efficiently test the bodily waste products of their employees? Or when employees who test positive are required to wear a patch or take a pill designed to make them sick the next time they consume a prohibited substance?

When and where will we draw the line?

Posted by A. Shapiro
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