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Drug Testing

In 1986, the Reagan administration began to heavily promote drug testing in the workplace as part of the escalating War on Drugs. Since then, drug testing has proliferated from safety-sensitive jobs to non-safety sensitive jobs to pre-employment job testing to suspicionless drug testing of public high school students to mandatory drug testing of applicants for public benefits. Drug testing is also a near universal feature of the criminal justice system in the United States, with most probationers and parolees required to undergo drug testing regardless of the nature of their underlying offense or history of drug use.

This proliferation has occurred despite the paucity of evidence that widespread suspicionless drug testing results in safer workplaces and schools, reduces substance abuse problems, combats crime, or is more effective at achieving these various goals than less costly-and less intrusive-alternatives (e.g., performance testing for workers, honest drug education and extracurricular activities for high school students, etc.).

While drug testing has expanded, so too have drug testing technologies-from urine testing to hair testing, sweat testing, saliva testing and the use of so-called “Drug Recognition Experts.” Positive results from these drug tests are used to impose a wide array of sanctions, from revocation of probation or parole and immediate return to jail or prison, to loss of parental or custody rights over children, to dismissal from work, inability to participate in extracurricular activities, denial of public benefits, and so on. Unfortunately, many of the newer drug testing technologies are not sufficiently reliable and yield a significant number of “false positive” test results – that is, drug screens that appear to show drug use when none has taken place. In addition, an increasing number of prescription and over-the-counter medications and even foods produce positive drug test results even though the person being tested did not ingest drugs. The unreliability of many drug testing technologies is a matter of grave concern, particularly when the negative consequences that flow from positive drug tests are so enormous.

Lastly, drug testing has largely been detached from its therapeutic underpinnings. A true positive drug test provides little information except that a particular substance has been ingested. It does not indicate when that substance was ingested, if the person was under the influence of drugs at the time of testing or while on the job, if the person can carry out his or her parenting responsibilities, if the person suffers from an addiction disorder (or is simply a one-time or occasional drug taker), or even if the person knowingly ingested the substance. It is a rare employer, school district, government bureaucracy or law enforcement agency that uses drug testing not to sanction individuals but to determine whether the people being drug tested suffer from addiction and, if so, to provide those persons with treatment options and support services.

Drug Policy Alliance, together with the ACLU Drug Policy Litigation Project, and the National Advocates for Pregnant Women is involved in a variety of legal challenges to expansive drug testing policies and unreliable drug testing technologies. These challenges attempt to uphold and strengthen the right to privacy found in the Constitution, ensure due process for all persons, and to promote rational drug testing policies rooted in science and public health rather than conjecture and fear.

Posted by A. Shapiro
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