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Drug Testing News
The fascination with
Issue: March, 2000
The fascination with urine remains undimmed through the ages.
Until the arrival of scientific medicine, physicians subjected
it to careful visual scrutiny, expecting the color and clarity
to reveal an exact diagnosis. Today, it's the corporate class
that seems transfixed by the predictive powers of piss: 80
percent of large employers insist on testing job applicants'
urine--or occasionally hair or blood--for damning traces of
illegal substances. You can be the best qualified applicant in
all other ways, but if your urine speaks against you, you're
out. Experience, skill, enthusiasm, and energy--pee trumps
It's odd, given employers' lack of concern about the rest of
their employees' private lives, that they take so much
interest in the off-hour consumption of drugs. The members of
the employing class, after all, don't seem to care whether
their potential employees spend their weekends consuming kiddie porn or abusing their pets. Nor do most employers show
the slightest concern about the adequacy of their employees'
diets and housing arrangements. In fact, they will be
delighted to hire you for $6 or $7 an hour even though, on
wages like that, you will probably be unable to observe the
most elementary proprieties, like living indoors and showering
before showing up for work.
Odder still, especially for those who think of capitalism as
the most "rational" of economic systems, drug testing doesn't
work, even on the employers' rather Scrooge-like terms. A
report released last September by the ACLU, "Drug Testing: A
Bad Investment," summarizes studies showing that drug testing
does not lower absenteeism, improve workplace safety, or
achieve any of the other goals claimed for it by the anti-drug
warriors. This should be no surprise: The tests mainly detect
marijuana, which lingers in the body far longer than cocaine
or heroin, and drug testing labs are often alarmingly
inaccurate, in both the false-negative and false-positive
directions. In addition, smart drug users have all kinds of
ways of foiling the test, from the herb goldenseal (available
in health food stores) to vials of drug-free, battery-warmed
urine (available on the Web). More to the point, most drug
users confine their drug using to their off hours, when it can
have little or no possible effect on their job performance.
The residual mental effects of a weekend joint, for example,
are about as powerful as those of a Saturday night beer--i.e.,
nil. Not to mention the fact that one of the most disabling
and addicting drugs, alcohol, isn't usually tested for at all.
And what exactly would it mean for drug testing to "work,"
anyway? An argument could be made for testing airline pilots
and school bus drivers, on the grounds that an off-hour user
might, just possibly, be tempted to take up while landing a
747 or driving on ice-coated streets. But retail and cleaning
service workers? In my town, Winn-Dixie tests applicants for a
$6-an-hour job stacking Cheerio boxes; Howard Johnson tests
applicants for bed-making jobs. Hudson News, which can be
found in New York area airports, greets customers with a sign
boasting that it's a "drug-free workplace," but is the
newspaper you buy there any more interesting if the cashier is
an abstainer rather than a stoner? An alcoholic rather than a
Speaking of newspapers, The New York Times, the Los Angeles
Times, and The Washington Post all test their editors and
writers--a practice that may actually make these papers less
interesting, or at least help account for their unrelieved
blandness. This is not because druggies make better reporters
(though who knows?), but because any journalist sheep-like
enough to submit to a urine test should, on this evidence
alone, be barred from a profession that claims to value
fearlessly independent thinking.
In other areas, drug testing may actually be
counterproductive. First, there's the cost. The ACLU reports
that in 1990 the federal government spent $11.7 million to
test 29,000 employees, only 153 of whom tested
positive--amounting to a cost of $77,000 to detect each
putative drug user! Then there's the likely effect of testing
on morale. A 1998 study found that testing "reduced rather
than enhanced productivity" by as much as 29 percent,
apparently because it leads to a certain surliness among the
So why, in contempt of all the evidence, does American
business remain so slavishly addicted to drug testing? Part of
the answer has to be that drug testing is now a billion dollar
industry, meaning that an awful lot of people have a stake in
its health and longevity. Capitalism is supposed to operate in
a briskly rational fashion, but profits can perpetuate any
kind of foolishness. Hence, for example, the Congressional
fondness for obsolete weapons systems: It doesn't matter if
they can't fly or even if the Pentagon has adamantly rejected
them; they keep Lockheed Martin and Boeing content.
Sheer herd mentality--"peer pressure," as it's known in the
anti-drug movement--also contributes to the drug-testing
habit. I once asked a hotel owner why he tests his employees,
and he said, in so many words: Everyone else is doing it, and
I don't want to be the one who gets stuck with all the
druggies and lowlifes who can't get a job anywhere else in
town. This sounded vaguely reasonable until he added that he
couldn't, ha ha, pass one of those tests himself, which made
me wonder: If one pot-head can make all the company's top
decisions, why can't another one be trusted to push a broom?
Nor can we eliminate the kinkier charms of drug testing--to
the employer, that is. In some testing protocols, the hapless
worker has to pull down her pants in front of a lab technician
or attendant and then pee in the presence of that forbidding
audience. This is not a medical procedure; it's a rite of
humiliation, designed to send the employee the message: We own
you, all of you, and our ownership extends way beyond 5 P.M.
Similarly for those intrusive pre-employment "personality
tests," with true-or-false propositions like "I often feel
overwhelmed by self-pity." It's not really our urine that they
want--or our blood or our hair--but our souls.
There are a few small, hopeful signs. Faced with a severe
labor shortage, some Internet and computer firms are
abandoning testing rather than drive away qualified
applicants. In safety-sensitive industries, a few companies
have taken up the far more pertinent practice of "performance
testing"--gauging an employee's motor skills just prior to
But the damage to democracy has already been done. In a decade
of testing, millions of Americans have grown inured to this
invasion of their bodies and private lives, readily trading
their Fourth Amendment protection from "unreasonable search"
in exchange for a job. And submission, no less than drugs, can
be a hard habit to break.
Barbara Ehrenreich is a columnist for The Progressive.