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Chemical McCarthyism

Evan Endicott

A few months ago, I applied for a job with a new telecommunications company in Chicago. Because the company had just started up, they were hiring anyone they could find who seemed capable of shucking HBO and the like to high-rise apartment dwellers, and I figured I fit the bill. A number of my friends had started at the company doing door-to-door sales during the summer, and had made thousands of dollars already. I noticed that my wallet had lost some serious weight since my return to school, and figured it was time to look for a new career, since my current job at the student center paid a painful $6 per hour. I sent in a resume, breezed through an interview, and was already spending the fortunes I planned on making when I was hit with the dreaded message from my supervisor:

"So, everything looks in order. Just need to schedule you for a routine drug test and then we can get you into our training program."

Uh, pardon me? My friends hadn't made any mention of this. Fortunately, I had a week or so to prepare, and prepare I did I resisted the temptations waved in front of my nose by my stoner buddies, drank water like a marathon runner who'd sprung a leak, and ate vitamins and cranberry supplements to "cleanse" my tainted system. Still, I was a nervous wreck when the time arrived to make my bodily donation to science.

The lab that conducted my test was a shady walk-up in a seedy downtown district, operated by three employees whose medical qualifications seemed dubious at best. After a brief wait I was ushered into a room to fill out a stack of forms, a process I had to postpone, owing to the gallon of water I'd guzzled on the way to the testing facility. The nurse obliged and took me next door, where I was handed a plastic cup and told to "produce a sample."

I don't know how many of you have ever been forced to urinate in front of an absolute stranger before, but it's just a tad embarrassing. It didn't help that the nurse looked like Norman Bates in his Mama get-up, either, or that the sample container was the size of a Dixie cup. Fortunately, I had to go so bad that I didn't really have time to be mortified, so I delivered a sample promptly and was sent on my way. As I walked out the door, a lab technician shouted, "Good luck!" a comment I found disconcerting. After all, what did luck have to do with science?

As it turns out, quite a bit (urinalysis isn't quite the exact science some proponents would have you believe). I ended up "passing" the test, but my experience left me wondering about the logic of urinalysis. I was indeed a drug user (abuser, according to the Republican regime that first recommended drug testing in the workplace) and I had managed to get the job anyway. And the test hadn't altered my behavior one bit in fact, as soon as I found out the results I lit up a celebratory spliff and chuckled at my accomplishment. So why have pre-employment drug tests? Do they really benefit employers? Do they really keep employees on the straight and narrow?

I decided to find out why innocent (and not-so-innocent) Americans were having their urine ritually collected and analyzed for traces of mind-altering chemicals. The results of my search were startling, and prompted me to put this article together so that the vile practice of pre-employment pee inspection could be exposed for what it really is. To begin with, a little history lesson is in order.

THE COLD WAR VOID: "We need a new enemy, Mr. President. Those damn Russians have given up the fight!"

With the fall of the Evil Empire in the mid-'80s, America faced a grim future. The villainous specter of nuclear annihilation no longer kept the unstable populace united in fear of imminent death, and the Republican regime, led by Ron and Nancy Reagan, was scrambling for a new disease to blame the country's social ills on. But what evil could possibly replace those vicious Commies in the Kremlin?

Why, drugs, of course. It had been awhile since the mass drug hysteria of the '30s and '40s, and Americans had been growing increasingly tolerant of illicit substances. Just look at the Acid Revolution of the '60s, the cocaine-fueled discos of the '70s, and the crack-ridden ghettoes of the '80s-yes, Americans had forgotten about the sinister substances lurking right around the corner from their suburban homes and schoolyards. Ron and Nancy decided to put a stop to this. Nancy's contribution was the intelligence-insulting "Just Say No!" campaign, which produced some of my childhood's most hilarious television commercials ("I learned it by watching you, dad!") and tried to convince people that drugs like marijuana were just as harmful as physically addictive narcotics like heroin and cocaine. Ronnie's efforts were not nearly as laughable.

Chief among them was the workplace drug-testing program designed by J. Michael Walsh (director of the Division of Applied Research and the Office of Workplace Initiatives at NIDA, the National Institute on Drug Abuse) and championed by Reagan and Bush throughout their respective terms in office.

The gist of the program (which remains unchanged today) is simple: drug users, whether crack addicts or weekend marijuana smokers, make less productive workers than their "straight" counterparts. Among the statistics "cited" by the Reagan-Bush administrations during their efforts to instate workplace testing were the following:

‡ have 2.5 times more absences
‡ are 3.6 times more likely to be involved in a workplace accident
‡ are 5 times more likely to file a worker compensation claim
‡ use 3 times more health benefits than non-users.

The bottom line for any government statistic is, of course, money. And according to Reagan, the cost of drug abuse to U.S. Industry during the '80s was roughly $50 billion a year. Bush revised this total in 1989, asserting that the figure had risen to somewhere near $100 billion. Whatever the cost, the answer was clear-pre-employment testing should be instituted in both private and public industry, and random tests should be admitted to keep the workplace "drug-free."


The interesting thing about the figures cited by the Republicans is that no one knows where they came from. The statistics were usually quoted without any citation at all. When pressed for answers, the right-wing attributed its stats to the mysterious "Firestone Study." It has a nice ring to it, sure, but when the ACLU began researching the study for their September 1999 report (entitled Drug Testing: A Bad Investment), they ran into a major roadblock-the study doesn't exist. Turns out that in 1972, at a luncheon address to executives of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, an unidentified speaker stated that employees with "medical-behavioral problems" (on average) had 2.5 more absences, used 3 times more medical benefitsˆ Well, you see where this is going, right? Keep in mind that the speaker didn't mention how this information was collected, how many workers were examined, or even what the aforementioned "medical-behavioral problems" were.

Eleven years later, Sidney Cohen, editor of the Drug Abuse and Alcoholism Newsletter, discovered the Firestone speech in a collection of essays and reproduced its anecdotal evidence as "research statistics" in his publication. Not only did Cohen imply that the figures were scientific data collected from a methodologically sound study, he also identified the study's subjects as "illicit drug users"-quite a leap from the actual speech's terms (the uber-vague "employees with medical-behavioral problems"). From 1983 on, proponents of drug-testing (from The Partnership for a Drug Free America to the purveyors of urinalysis tests and products) have been preaching the Firestone statistics as gospel truths, and employers have been taking their words on good faith.

An even more ludicrous statistic is that drug users cost businesses $100 billion a year in lost productivity. Let's take a look at how this figure was created. In 1982, NIDA, under the auspices of the federal government, surveyed 3,700 households throughout the country. The Research Triangle Institute (RTI) was contracted by NIDA to crunch the numbers and deliver a significant anti-drug statistic. Their finding: the household income of adults who had ever smoked marijuana daily for a month was 28 percent less than the income of those who hadn't. RTI labeled this "reduced productivity due to daily marijuana use," then extrapolated this figure to the general population to reach an estimated total "productivity loss" of $26 billion. Then they added the estimated costs of drug-related crimes, accidents and medical care to reach a total figure of $47 billion-the "costs to society of drug abuse."

There are a number of things wrong with the RTI study, but I'll just touch on a few. The first is the basic conclusion that marijuana use was responsible for the lower incomes of the specified families. Lower income families vary from higher income families in myriad ways. Suppose, for example, that low income drinkers prefer Miller Lite, while high-income earners drink Hennesey scotch. Would you believe a statistic that told you "Miller Lite has been shown to reduce productivity, while scotch is responsible for higher productivity levels and higher earning potential?" It's a basic scientific principle-correlation does not imply causality. I learned that in high school! Makes me wonder where the government finds their "scientists."

Another thing: did you notice the strange variable that RTI used to calculate productivity loss? Why choose "marijuana-use-daily-for-a-month-ever" to indicate "drug abuse"? The answer is simple. RTI did collect data on current use of drugs (including cocaine, heroin, amphetamines and LSD as well as marijuana) among these households, but could find no correlation at all to the use of these drugs and decreased income. In other words, current cocaine abusers showed no difference in income than their straight neighbors. So if Walsh and the rest of the anti-drug zealots can state that daily marijuana use for a month at some point in a person's life decreases productivity, then they must also concede that current use of heroin or cocaine does not decrease productivity. Of course they have not done this, and probably never will. Walsh's approach seems to entail finding data to support an existing conclusion-the exact opposite of established scientific method.

The result of all this "junk science" is nothing to scoff at. Drug testing has been widely instituted in private businesses over the past decade, and in 1996, "the share of major U.S. firms that test for drugs rose to 81 percent." All of this time, energy and money has been expended by U.S. employers without one shred of evidence demonstrating that drug users decrease productivity or that urinalysis can facilitate a drug free workplace.


Finally, an antidote to the specious claims of the right-wing is available-the truth. In 1994, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the nation's oldest and most prestigious scientific body, published a report entitled Under the Influence? Drugs and the American Work Force, which addressed each of the claims made by proponents of drug testing.

After reviewing the evidence, the NAS concluded that "the dataˆdo not provide clear evidence of the deleterious effects of drugs other than alcohol on safety and other job performance indicators."

Two recent studies that the NAS examined were conducted with post office employees to determine whether pre-employment drug tests were a good predictor of job performance, including workers' likelihood of having accidents or sustaining injuries. In both of these studies, researchers found no difference between employees who tested positive at the time of hire and those who tested negative. In addition, in a review of 213 employees who were given post-accident drug tests, 96% tested negative. Based on these and other studies, the NAS concluded that illicit drugs have very little to do with industrial accidents.

The reason for this, according to the NAS, is that very few workers who use illicit drugs use them at work. Rather, they indulge occasionally on weekends or after work, and the residual effects of their use are minimal. For stimulants, the residual effects are akin to slight sleep deprivation (without drugs), and for marijuana users, the effects "appear slight if they exist at all."

Similar studies confirmed that Republican statistics regarding absences and medical benefits were also suspect. Using the patient database of California's largest HMO, NAS researchers compared the health care costs of people who used marijuana with people who didn't and found no significant difference, even when they compared a smaller sample of heavy, frequent marijuana users to non-users.

The main point of the NAS study is that drugs in the workplace are not nearly as widespread (or damaging) as the Drug War's generals would have you believe. Most drug users who work use illicit substances off duty and are responsible employees. In addition, for employees who do use substances at work, alcohol is far more impairing than stimulants or marijuana-and yet alcohol cannot be detected by urinalysis.


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