Drug-tests waste time and money

Wiley A. Hall 3rd

January 03, 1991|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

There now!

You see?

This is exactly the kind of thing I've been talking about.

State officials are about to launch their massive new random drug-testing program, a program which will affect some 13,000 state employees involved in "safety-sensitive" occupations.

It will cost about $400,000 of taxpayers' hard-earned money and that total doesn't include the cost of lost productivity as legions of workers queue up for the proverbial cup.

It also doesn't include the intangible costs -- such as the lost dignity of innocent persons tested before witnesses. Nor does it take into account the despair of the small percentage of innocent workers who will almost surely be falsely accused and persecuted despite all safeguards to the contrary.

Yet try as I might, I can't see the reason for random testing.

On the evidence, the entire program is just another expensive, intrusive sop to a politician's vanity; just another way for elected officials to primp and pose and pretend that they are doing something really tough about drugs.

Ask yourself: Why are we suddenly testing thousands of state workers?

Are people lurching about the workplace in a drugged stupor?

Are transit drivers crashing their buses into cars and trees and little old ladies?

Are police and corrections officers, bleary-eyed and wobbly-kneed, firing their weapons at phantom pink elephants?

State officials say, "Yes."

No, upon reflection, they change that yes, to "Maybe."

No, upon more reflection, they change that maybe to, "Not yet."

This whole, $400,000 plan, they say after even more reflection, is really to send a tough message to state employees so that this sort of thing will never, ever happen here. Preventive medicine.

"There is no question that we have a very serious drug problem -- not just in state government, but in every jurisdiction in the state, and at every level of society," proclaimed Katherine Austin, assistant secretary of the state Personnel Department.

"National studies have shown that one out of every six employees may be under the influence of either drugs or alcohol at any given time," she continued. "And there is no reason not to think that our employees are any different."

In fact, those same national studies of drug use in the workplace have estimated that illicit drug use cost the nation $22 billion in lost productivity in 1980. There have been claims that drug-abusing employees have three to four times as many accidents at work, five times as many compensable personal injuries, and use 16 times as much sick leave.

Problem is, there is no hard evidence that drug abuse has been wreaking this kind of havoc in state offices.

And, to thicken the plot, the Journal of the American Medical Association reported last November that those reports of massive workplace losses may have been grossly over-estimated.

Meanwhile, a host of other national studies, such as surveys of high school students and military personnel, indicate a dramatic decline in drug and alcohol use over the past decade.

All this begs the question, again: Why? Why now?

"I think we have to go with the preponderance of evidence and the preponderance of evidence is that a problem of drug and alcohol abuse exists," said Leonard Sipes, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

Then he added, "Although admittedly, much of that evidence is subjective."

All in all, state officials could not estimate how many workers they expect to catch with this program because they have no idea of how many besotted workers there are now.

They said they had no way to measure the program's effect, good or bad, on productivity and safety because they have no idea of the current effect of drug abuse on productivity and safety.

So, here we go again -- bulling ahead with an expensive, intrusive, flawed approach to address a problem we are expected to take on faith, using a program the success of which cannot be measured.

That seems like an awful lot of smoke to me.

I'll accept that there is a problem of drug abuse among law abiding citizens-- mainly because everyone seems to think there is. But is this truly the most effective use for $400,000 or just the most dramatic, in our loud, posturing, blustery, war against drugs?

Knowing politicians the way we all do, I think it's safe to vote for the latter.

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