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Monday, November 04, 2002

Coalition for a Work-Free Drug Place

Matt Welch points to this Reason article on workplace drug-testing. According to a 1997 survey, 49% of respondents said their employers require some kind of drug testing.

(Nitpick: Presumably it's this survey that leads Jacob Sullum, the author, to assert several times---beginning in the fifth paragraph---that half of all employers require drug testing. This is not the same thing, because not all employers employ the same amount of people. So if very large employers are more likely to use drug testing---as he does claim in the article---then this will skew the results. The difference isn't that meaningful to his article, but I thought I should point it out.)

Short summary: Reagan's "War on Drugs" and the accompanying media hysteria prompted many companies into instituting routine workplace drug testing even though 1) it was not necessarily warranted by the duties of the job, 2) its success as weeding out poor employees is largely unknown, 3) it generally ignores the largest contributor to problems of workplace substance abuse---alcohol, and 4) IT'S AN EGREGIOUS VIOLATION OF EMPLOYEES' PRIVATE LIVES.

I have to agree with Sullum on this part:

For defenders of liberty, this situation arouses mixed feelings.

On the one hand, freedom of contract means that businesses should be allowed to set whatever conditions they like for employment. People who don't want to let Home Depot or Wal-Mart sample their urine can take their labor elsewhere.

On the other hand, the profit motive is clearly not the only factor driving the use of drug testing. Through mandates and exhortation, the government has conscripted and enlisted employers to enforce the drug laws...

He goes on to say:

But in the late 1980s and early '90s, government propaganda and alarmist press coverage combined to persuade employers that they could no longer rely on traditional methods for distinguishing between good and bad workers. "When employers read in Time and Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report that there was an epidemic of drug abuse in America, they got scared like everyone else," says Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute and a leading critic of drug testing.

This is the way I remember it too.

In 1992 or '93, I was looking for a job. I got an interview with a large corporation which provides computer and other expertise. It is, among other things, a big government contractor. They required a drug test. Now, I believed that drug tests were an unjustifiable part of the unjustifiably zealous prosecution of the War on Some Drugs. I didn't want to take a drug test on principle. On the other hand, I needed a job. I decided to take the interview to see whether the job was so good as to compensate for violating my principles.

It wasn't, as it turned out. The job had a lot of strikes against it, and the drug test was just one of them. I was very relieved, however, that I wasn't going to have to face that particular dilemma. I did get an offer from the company, but I turned it down, despite not having other employment at the time. When they asked why, I gave them the real reason, rather than mentioning the drug test. After all, I knew about the test before I went on the interview. (And there was always the possiblity that I'd need a different job with them later.)

Now, I can see situations where drug testing might be warranted---say, in the case of people who operate mass transit (like airplanes) or other heavy machinery with a high chance of disaster. I can also understand why companies where employee theft is a big problem would want to use it. I still think random testing is unjustified, but I can understand the reasoning.

This job was arguably of the former variety, but only just. It involved scheduling in a national scientific facility. There was, I suppose, a possibility that if you were high as a kite, you could put something into the schedule which would break the machinery. But the command would have to escape the notice of your co-workers, supervisor, the watchdog software, the engineers at the place where the commands were actually implemented, and their watchdog software. A mistake so disastrous and yet so subtle seems to me to be much more likely to result from incompetence, or simple bad luck, than impairment.

Matt Welch says, in his own comments, "I use drugs at the rate of about one Clintonesque inhalation per 18 months." Compared to me, Matt is Hunter S. Thompson and Judy Garland rolled into one. I'm scared of drugs, even every-day, normal drugs. I had surgery a couple years ago, and was not shy about using the morphine button. But they sent me home with some Tylenol laced with codeine, plus big gobs of ibuprofen. I wouldn't touch the Tylenol; I was afraid that with the morphine and codeine I might get addicted to opiates, not to mention becoming extra-loopy. My previous brush with "powerful" drugs involved some over-the-counter cold medicine, the kind where you aren't supposed to operate heavy machinery after you take it. Obviously, my very brain is heavy machinery:

Miles, come here. Look at this.
Wha---? Will you get up off the ground. It's cold, and you'll get dirty.
Yes, dirty. I want you to look at the dirt. Have you ever noticed dirt? It's so smooth, so uniform in color. Yet it must be made up of many different things. And it's so brown. Why do you suppose dirt is brown, Miles?
My name is Niles, not Miles.
Oh. Then where's Miles?
There isn't any Miles, there's just me, Niles.
Oh, your name's not Niles! That's just a name I made up so's no one would know your real name.
OK, back to bed with you.

I figure that if I can't handle a simple dose of *Quil, I don't have any use for any truly mind-altering substances. I can alter my mind at will, and don't need 'em. So it's not like I'm worried about passing the drug tests, although it may be that since I've returned to the US I've consumed enough poppy seeds to test positive for opiates for the rest of my life. That remains to be seen.

In the Reason article, Sullum notes that drug testing provides some side "benefits" to employers, such as weeding out the undesirable:

"In the industry that we are in," says Amy Maxwell, Link's marketing manager, "a lot of times we get people with undesirable traits, and drug testing can screen them out real quick."


As the National Academy of Sciences noted, "drug use may be just one among many characteristics of a more deviant lifestyle, and associations between use and degraded performance may be due not to drug-related impairment but to general deviance or other factor."

(Note that the National Academy of Sciences does not perform drug tests on all their employees. At least, not in 1994---1997.)

As Matt says in the comments, however, this works both ways. Potential employees can decide that companies who do routine drug testing may well be undesirable in other ways. Say, for example, by exhibiting a sense of confusion between the employee's private and work life. Or perhaps an eagerness to follow management fads. Or maybe just blindness to the value of employee morale.

I need a job again, and this month's job listings in my field show a job I am qualified for. It's potentially a really good job (though it asks for surprisingly low qualifications; usually these things require at least a PhD). But it requires a drug test. Out of 182 jobs advertised in this month's listings, only the two jobs from this organization require a drug test. In fact, of all the jobs from the last two years, this company is the only one that states straight out that they require a drug test. Wonder if this is why they've advertised this same job three times in the past year. (Probably not, but it is kind of strange.) I didn't apply, because of the drug test. Not going to this time, either. Their loss. Yeah, that's what I'll keep telling myself.

(Here's an ongoing theme of this site: Google is your friend. Since I don't use it, I wasn't sure how to spell NyQuil, so I googled it up. Do you know there are at least three different recipes for a cocktail called "NyQuil"? Each one more horrible-sounding than the last. Someone else will have to try them for me, because I'm not a big drinker either (I would be, but I keep falling asleep). Oh, and here: Laurence Simon reviews the hard drugs.

Whatever that stuff was that I took about ten years ago, it wasn't NyQuil. It was some sort of pill. Now I stick to those hot lemon drink thingies.)