Why Drug Testing?
In large segments of American business one must pass a drug test before being employed and may be subject to random drug testing during the entire term of employment. Hundreds of local school districts require high school students to subject themselves to random drug tests. Thousands are serving multi-year prison sentences only because they flunked one drug test while on probation or parole. The only people exempt from these tests are elected officials, candidates for office, and police. What’s going on here?
Drug testing was instituted under the Reagan administration as part of the enhanced War on Drugs. Just like Nixon, Reagan had trouble being Tough on Crime because most street crimes are the states’ responsibility. Drug-dealing is almost the only common offense toward which the federal government can take action. His political problems were two-fold: first to build public concern about the drug “problem” and second to show the public that he was doing something about it.
Nancy’s “Just say ‘No’” program took care of the first part, especially with its stress on drug use by children. The army had found an answer to the second one.
In the early 1970s the army was shocked to find that many (some sources say as many as 25 per cent) of the troops in Viet Nam were using marijuana or heroin. The Defense Department instituted drug testing and required a clean test before anyone would be allowed to return to the States. To the surprise of almost everyone, virtually all of the personnel returning to America remained heroin free. The military then began requiring routine testing for all personnel.
Reagan used this model as a way to publically demonstrate his desire to eliminate drugs. He required testing on all employees in safety-related positions over which he had authority, both federal employees like air-traffic controllers and postal truck drivers and those in private industry over whom the government had regulatory authority. This group included airline pilots, railroad engineers, and interstate truckers and bus drivers.
However, the federal jurisdiction did not extend to most employees in the country, who were outside the reach of the interstate commerce powers. Congress stepped in and required insurance companies, which were subject to their regulation, to give discounts on workers’ compensation premiums to employers who tested their job applicants and employees. These discounts were substantial enough for employers to save money by testing.
The Department of Education got into the act by making grants to local school districts to pay for student drug testing. The Supreme Court held that this testing was constitutional if the school board found an existing significant problem of drug abuse and the testing was limited to students voluntarily participating in extracurricular activities like sports teams.
Further expansion of drug testing ran into legal problems. Most cities were precluded from testing members of police forces and fire departments by collective bargaining agreements. Public service unions have refused to renegotiate those provisions.
Louisiana tried to impose drug testing on candidates for public office. When one candidate challenged that law, the Supreme Court held that no relationship existed between the testing and qualification for office and held those tests to be an unconstitutional invasion of privacy.
Except for politicians, police officers, and firefighters, drug tests have become almost universal. What good have they done?
The answer is somewhere between minimal and none.
School drug testing has been examined thoroughly. Across the nation only about 1% of the tests are positive for drugs. Proponents argue that the low rate of positive results shows that the tests are convincing (or frightening) students not to do drugs. However, repeated surveys comparing testing school with non-testing schools show no measurable difference in drug use.
Employment testing is even more marginal. Only about 0.5% are positive. No adequate studies show the extent, if any, to which drug users are deterred from applying for jobs. The problem is that failing a drug test for anything other than marijuana is easy to avoid. Twenty-four hour abstinence before the test is usually sufficient. Opioids and stimulants (cocaine, amphetamines, Ritalin, etc.) are purged from the body in less than 48 hours, and alcohol is cleared in even less time. A Saturday night binge will be undetected by a Monday morning test.
No studies have been publicized showing that employers that test have safer work places than those that do not. On the other hand, early studies showed that productivity was lower in companies that tested than in comparable companies in the same industry that did not.
A major problem is that drug testing is not comprehensive. Alcohol is the only drug that has clearly been shown to adversely affect work place safety, but drug tests do not test for alcohol. Even airline pilots, who are barred by regulation from drinking for twelve hours before flying, are not tested for alcohol. Many people take legal drugs that are required to carry warning labels against driving or operating heavy equipment. These range from over-the-counter preparations like Benadryl to strong opiates like OxyCotin. Many of these drugs are not tested for. For others, including opioids and amphetamines, prescription users are exempt from testing.
Many of the strongest degraders of work place safety and efficiency are non-pharmaceutical. Talking on a cell phone while driving has been shown to have the same effect on driving ability as drinking four beers, and texting while driving is the equivalent of being legally drunk. Insomnia, strained domestic relations, financial worries, and other similar personal problems also measurably degrade performance.
An employer interested in improving work place safety or productivity would not use drug testing. Performance degradation tests, easily administrable in less than a minute at the beginning of a shift, would show actual decreases in ability and would cost much less to use. Some of these are descendents of the old pursuit-rotor tests and may be administered with a small computer or keypad. Of course, this solution presents the problem of what a bus company would do if a substantial percentage of its drivers were incapacitated because of fights with their spouses or aching teeth.
In short, employment and school drug testing is an expensive feel-good propaganda effort with no beneficial effects. They should be stopped and replaced by ability testing in those positions in which safe performance is critical.