March 2010

Does drug-testing make sense?

By Gail Binkly

A few months ago, I applied for a part-time job that had nothing to do with journalism or writing. I think I would have been good at it, and evidently the employer agreed, as I was offered the position.

The catch came as he was telling me about the forms I had to fill out. “And you’ll need to take a drug test,” he added, almost as an afterthought. (The drug test wasn’t mentioned in the Help Wanted ad.)

I went home and thought hard.

I’ve always said I’d never take a drug test as a condition of employment, but I’d never been asked to take one up to that point. Suddenly it was crunch time and I had to decide whether my attitude was foolish and antiquated. After all, I wanted the job.

I called a few friends.

“I had to take one,” the first told me. “It’s icky, but it’s no big deal.”

“Go ahead and take it,” another advised. “It’s not as if you have anything to hide.”

That last remark, however, made me bristle. Whether or not I had anything to “hide” wasn’t the point. If that’s the only criterion for deciding whether we should allow our bodies, our cars or our homes to be searched, then why even bother with the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, the one that says, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.. . .”? Why require that law officers obtain search warrants? Why not just open our doors and let the police snoop around any time they like, so long as we have nothing to hide?

Once, maybe 10 years ago, my husband and I were driving north from Organ Pipe National Monument in Arizona, right on the Mexican border. I was driving while David dozed. Suddenly I saw red and blue lights flashing in the rear-view mirror. I hadn’t been speeding, so I was puzzled as I pulled over.

A highway patrolman stepped up and told me I had a headlight out. Then he ordered me out of the car. “Open your trunk,” he said. Still bemused, I obeyed. He rooted around in our suitcases and our L.L. Bean backpacks and our caches of granola bars for awhile, then gave up. He curtly told me to get back in the car, then wrote me a warning for the headlight.

I’ve been ashamed ever since that I didn’t stand up to the man when he ordered me to open my trunk. Why didn’t I say, “What for? Do you have a warrant? What probable cause do you have to search my vehicle?”

But I didn’t, because the easiest thing to do was just to go along. And it was a dark, lonely road, and he had the gun.

Today, drug-testing in the workplace is widely practiced and largely accepted. But I don’t see much difference between this testing, and the behavior of the highway patrolman on that Arizona road. It’s a form of bullying and a violation of the American principle of “innocent until proven guilty.”

Drug-testing in the workplace became legal in 1986, when Ronald Reagan, that great crusader against drugs, signed an executive order stating that “the Federal government, as the largest employer in the Nation, can and should show the way toward achieving drug-free workplaces. . .” It was followed by the Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988. Both applied only to federal employees, but private employers were swift to follow the leader, and a new, profitable urinetesting industry sprang up.

Employers have many rationales for conducting the tests. One is that drug use supposedly causes great amounts of absenteeism and diminished productivity. There are wild claims that drug use is costing businesses $30 billion, $50 billion, $100 billion in lost productivity every year, though those numbers seem to have been pulled out of a hat and can’t be substantiated. Other studies have found that drug use in the workplace is fairly rare and most workers who test positive for drug use are casual, occasional users.

Then there’s the public-safety argument — you surely wouldn’t want your Boeing 747 pilot or your local police officer or your surgeon to be high, would you? And what about the guy who fries your fast-food burger? Or the kid who stacks things on the shelves in the giant building-supply depot? Why not just test everyone and make this a safe world?

The problem is, drug-testing has been in widespread use for a couple of decades now, and there isn’t any proof that we are safer. Federal drug tests commonly look for the presence of amphetamines, marijuana, cocaine, opiates and phencyclidine (PCP), according to the U.S. Department of Labor. All those substances will clear your body within a few days except marijuana, which can take up to 30 days if you are a fairly frequent smoker. So all a drug test truly shows is that you haven’t used most of those substances within the past three or four days, not that you never use them.

And the drug that has caused the most heartache, lost productivity, domestic violence, and illness in the history of the world — alcohol — is almost never the subject of testing. So employers who screen their workers are basically willing to employ alcoholics, just not people who use illegal substances. That tends to leave a rather large hole in the public-safety net that is allegedly being woven.

Of course, one could argue that employers have an interest in not hiring law-breakers. But if that’s their concern, they ought to broaden their screening to include lie-detector tests, so workers could be grilled about all their off-duty habits. That way you could find out if they steal, beat their wives, break speed limits, or litter. And we could really put a dent in crime.

But, seriously, if someone’s safety truly hinges on an employee’s clearheadedness, and there are plenty of situations where this is the case, it would be simpler, more effective and far less intrusive to make the employee take a quick computerized reflex test, like a video game, before cutting into someone’s brain with a scalpel or hopping into the cab of a semi. That way, you’d screen out people who were drowsy or jittery or otherwise unfit to work, not just someone who smoked pot two weeks earlier.

The problem is, some employers may prefer drug-testing, despite its clumsiness and ineffectiveness, because it allows them another window into their workers’ private lives. I don’t think this was the case with my job — the employer said drug-testing was a requirement of their insurer. But there is a trend toward employers demanding more and more control over what workers do in their off time. Using the excuse of lowering healthcare costs, Scotts Miracle-Gro has fired employees who wouldn’t quit smoking, even though they didn’t smoke at work, and Safeway has demanded that employees meet its weight, cholesterol, and blood-pressure standards or pay higher health-insurance premiums.

Drug tests are intrusive not only because they require people to pee in front of someone else, but because they can furnish information beyond what is ostensibly being sought. For example, in 1988 the Washington, D.C., Police Department used urine tests to see which employees were pregnant — without their knowledge.

In order to be drug-tested accurately and avoid false positives, people generally have to reveal which prescription and over-the-counter drugs they are using. Depending on how scrupulously or unscrupulously the results are handled, this means the employer could learn whether the worker or prospective hiree has cancer or an infection or migraines or insomnia.

I pondered all these lofty arguments, but I also considered some hard realities. I needed the extra income, and if I turned the job down, it wouldn’t matter a whit to anyone else. The employer would hire a different person, and no one would be persuaded to stop drug testing because of my noble gesture. Invasions of privacy are becoming easier and more commonplace; hardly anybody cares. Even the Tea Partiers, who carry on about “freedom,” don’t march in the streets over issues such as this, only universal health care.

In the end, I called the man who would hire me and said no, I couldn’t take the drug test or the job.

Just call me foolish.

Gail Binkly is editor of the Free Press.