A Chicago Tribune column and my letter to the editor.

Pubdate: Thu, 23 Sep 1999
Source: Chicago Tribune (IL)
Copyright: 1999 Chicago Tribune Company
Contact: tribletter@aol.com
Website: http://www.chicagotribune.com/
Forum: http://www.chicagotribune.com/interact/boards/

Author: Steve Chapman, OPED Columnist


Youngsters may find it hard to believe, but a mere 20 years ago, some things
we now take for granted were practically unknown--such as cellular phones,
e-mail and workplace drug testing. Now they are all unavoidable. The first
two gained popularity because they were useful and inexpensive ways of
improving our lives. But the last one, drug testing, has become ubiquitous
even though its only proven functions are to invade privacy, convey a false
sense of security and waste money.

If you have a job, chances are good that you've taken a drug test. In its
most recent comprehensive survey, the American Management Association found
that 81 percent of its 10,000 member companies conduct drug testing of job
applicants or current employees. In 1987, only 21 percent did. Back then,
companies rarely tested anyone unless they had grounds for suspicion. Today,
34 percent of those surveyed test employees regardless of whether they've
done anything wrong.

This is just one of the many ways in which the war on drugs has become a
general assault by the government on its own people. The vast majority of
Americans don't use illegal drugs. But they are forced into embarrassing
exercises for the sole purpose of proving their innocence.

The trend got started thanks to Ronald Reagan, who on some occasions was
known to complain about government intrusions in our daily lives. His
Transportation Department insisted on random drug testing of virtually
everyone in the transportation industry, from truck drivers to flight
attendants--some 4 million people.

That helped inspire the 1988 Federal Drug-Free Workplace Act, which required
any company doing business with the federal government to certify that its
employees were drug-free. The new law amounted to a mandate for drug
testing. In addition, the fear of being sued has no doubt pushed corporate
executives to require it to show their safety consciousness.

Drug testing was sold as a way of preventing accidents, reducing absenteeism
and boosting productivity. In practice, though, it's not a particularly
effective way of doing any of these. An employee who is stoned is probably
not the guy you want at the controls of a locomotive. Unfortunately, random
tests of employees don't tell you if someone has been getting high during
work hours. It only tells you if he's been high recently.

But someone who smokes dope at home isn't necessarily a safety hazard on the
job. As the American Civil Liberties Union notes in a new report, "Most
workers who use illicit drugs never use them at work. And, when they do use
drugs away from the job, they do so in a way that does not affect their work
performance." The ACLU notes that in a 1994 report, the National Academy of
Sciences concluded that "the moderate use of illicit drugs by workers during
off-duty hours was no more likely than moderate off-duty alcohol use was to
compromise workplace safety."

Drug testing isn't free. So, in the absence of government pressures, you'd
assume that profit-minded corporations wouldn't use it without proof that it
works. But Eric Rolfe Greenberg, director of management studies for the
American Management Association, says its surveys provide no evidence that
testing is effective in reducing drug use. By contrast, he says, "We have
very good evidence that drug education and awareness programs are
effective." At companies with such programs, employees are at least
one-third less likely to test positive for drugs than at companies without.

The persistence of testing is, as Samuel Johnson said of second marriages, a
triumph of hope over experience. When the management association asked
companies if they had any statistical evidence that their testing served to
reduce absenteeism, disability claims, accidents, employee theft or
violence, 75 to 80 percent of the respondents said no. A study of patients
by Kaiser Permanente, California's biggest HMO, found that marijuana users,
on average, didn't have higher health-care costs than non-users.

For companies concerned about drug-induced dangers, there are better
remedies. One is to test anyone involved in an accident. Another is to
require workers operating hazardous machinery to do simple tests of
dexterity, vision and coordination each time they clock in--which would
screen out those who are impaired by drugs, alcohol, fatigue, emotional
distress or anything else.

Over the past decade, drug testing has been tried on a grand scale, with no
apparent success. But our leaders in Washington don't seem to care whether
this expensive and intrusive program actually does any good. Which makes you
wonder: What are they smoking?

Editors, Chicago Tribune

Steve Chapman ended his excellent review on the failure of drug testing with
this: "Over the past decade, drug testing has been tried on a grand scale,
with no apparent success. But our leaders in Washington don't seem to care
whether this expensive and intrusive program actually does any good. Which
makes you wonder: What are they smoking?"

The answer is arrogance. The hardest thing for arrogant people to admit is
defeat, to acknowledge they were wrong, and that their error in judgment
caused harm. The facts have gone against the drug warriors for so long that
they aren't just smoking arrogance, they're mainlining it. Yes, they are

For with the truth comes the inevitable questions: "You mean I've been
peeing into a cup for ten years to keep my job and it hasn't help combat
drug use at all?" Yes. "You mean my mother who died of cancer because she
couldn't keep down her chemotherapy might have found nausea relief from
medical marijuana?" Yes. "Needle exchange programs would have prevented
200,000 cases of AIDS transmission without increasing illegal drug use?"
Yes. The list is long, indeed.

Politicians, while in office, don't want the truth to come out, because the
truth can be embarrassing. Worse, the truth can cost them votes. So, let's
all keep living a lie and we'll let the next administration handle it. And
the public, as usual, be dammed.

Peter McWilliams