Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Golden Age: our brief history of drug urine tests

The title of Greg Beato's article in Reason....The subtitle is good too: "How Americans learned to stop worrying and love workplace drug testing"

In the increasingly divided American landscape, where language, faith, and prime-time television no longer unite us as they once did, a thin golden line holds the nation together....Its domain is the restroom stall. Its associated features include tiny plastic cups, attentive strangers, and, on occasion, latex stunt penises and disposable heat packs.

It is, of course, the precautionary drug test. In 2008 it doesn’t matter if you’re a millionaire entertainer, a service-industry clock puncher, or the leader of the free world: We’re all citizens of Urine Nation.

How did we get to this strange land, where anyone who dreams of working a cash register at Burger King must consent to high-tech bio-seizures so unreasonable they would have made James Madison irrigate his breeches in outrage?....

Today, if you ask any V.P. of human resources or peddler of mass spectrometers why the drug testing industry needs to conduct 40 million pop quizzes each year, he’ll enthusiastically explain how drug testing can increase workplace safety and productivity, reduce absenteeism and worker’s compensation claims, and generally make our factories, offices, and strip malls happier, healthier, more profitable engines of commerce. It’s a bottom-line issue, he’ll tell you, not a law enforcement issue.

In 1986 the sales pitch was quite different. And it wasn’t the private sector who was pitching it. It was the President’s Commission on Organized Crime. Until the early ’80s, drug testing had mainly been used by methadone clinics, law enforcement agencies, and doctors. When test prices started dropping in 1980, the military and the transportation industry began to make it part of their institutional lives. But it got its biggest boost when the commission decided the country’s appetite for drugs was a “national emergency” that the police couldn’t handle alone. They needed help from the private sector.

In that bygone era, the idea of a suspicionless bio-seizure was still controversial. The American Federation of Government Employees decried the commission’s “witch-hunt mentality.” Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.) called the idea “idiotic.” Jay Miller, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Illinois affiliate, said it was “like using an elephant gun to shoot a mouse.”

So the government took baby steps. In September 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed an executive order mandating testing for federal employees. To “set an example and lead the way,” he and Vice President George H.W. Bush filled two bottles with grand old pee and had them sent to the U.S. Naval Hospital in Norfolk, Virginia, for testing. Two years later, Congress passed the Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988. While the Act didn’t specifically mandate testing, it required every company doing business with the federal government to maintain a drug-free workplace. Those that didn’t would lose their contracts....

[T]he policy had a domino effect. As soon as some companies started making prospective employees submit biological résumés, no organization wanted to end up as the preferred haven of the pharmacologically incorrect. So even companies that weren’t doing business with the government felt compelled to break out the tiny plastic cups. By 1996, 81 percent of the large businesses surveyed by the American Management Association said they were doing drug testing of some kind.

Today, workplace drug testing is a billion-dollar industry. It has also spawned a thriving anti-testing industry and entirely new crimes. In Indiana, simply owning a Whizzinator—a comically complex but allegedly effective device that consists of a fake latex penis, a harness, synthetic urine, and heating pads—can lead to a 180-day jail term and a $1,000 fine....

Observers still debate how much safer and more productive drug testing makes the workplace. But there’s at least one outfit that has no complaints about its efficacy. Forty million drug tests at an average of $30 a pop equals a $1.2 billion subsidy the federal government receives from the private sector each year to help prosecute its endless War on Drugs....

All of this reminds me of a letter to an editor asking why he had to pee in a cup to get a government contract, but welfare recipients don't have to do the same in order to get benefits...


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