ST. PAUL, MINNESOTA — St.Paul, Minnesota. -- It has been a while since drugs made the front page. So let me bring you up to date on recent findings about drug use that didn't make it to prime-time news.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse reported that the giant utility Utah Power and Light, ''spent $215 per employee per year less on the drug abusers in health insurance benefits than on the control group.'' Employees who tested positive for drugs at Georgia Power Company had a higher promotion rate than the company average. Workers testing positive only for marijuana exhibited absenteeism some 30 percent lower than average.
Scientific American, after exhaustive research, found that the studies usually cited to prove the dangers of drug use in the workplace were either shoddy or misinterpreted. Astonishingly, the magazine could identify only one study on workplace drug use that has passed through the standard peer review process for scientific evaluation.
That one, published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, studied 180 hospital employees, 22 of whom had tested positive after being hired. It found ''no difference between drug-positive and drug-negative employees'' with respect to supervisor evaluations or performance. Except for one intriguing item: Eleven of the negatives had been fired during their first year on the job, but none of the positives.
More recently the American Psychologist, a peer-reviewed scientific journal, reported on a 15-year study of San Francisco-area children by researchers Jonathan Shedler and Jack Block of the University of California at Berkeley.
Their report reveals that adolescents who occasionally use drugs are healthier than both drug abusers and drug abstainers. Moreover, those who abused drugs as teen-agers have distinct behavioral problems that were identifiable years before their drug use began. Drug use is a symptom, not a cause.
Says Mr. Shedler, ''The most effective drug prevention programs might not deal with drugs at all.''
In an interview published in the National Review, Michael S. Gazzaniga, professor of psychiatry at Dartmouth Medical School, discussed several studies that found that drug use increases in groups under stress, but that ''the rate of addiction doesn't go up no matter what the degree of stress. Most people can walk away from high drug use if their lives become more normal.''
The British journal New Scientist reports research that found the majority of those who become dependent on cocaine return to moderate use or total abstinence without treatment.
Finally, Florida State University conducted a study for the Florida legislature of 45,096 people arrested for drug possession in 1987. Eighty-eight percent had never been arrested for property crimes like burglary. Says Professor David Rasmussen, ''This study suggests we are incarcerating people for the use of drugs when they do not commit other crimes and tend not to commit other crimes''
What are we to conclude?
Relying on these and many other studies, the Washington-based Drug Policy Foundation, a beacon of reason in a sea of hysteria, offers the following framework. Stress causes drug use. The vast majority of those who use drugs are casual users. Those who use drugs tend not to commit other crimes. Drugs in the workplace are not a serious burden on productivity.
Which isn't to say there is no problem. There is. But it's a problem caused more by making drug use a crime than by the use itself.
''There is little argument that drug trafficking has played a crucial role in spawning the rise of violent crime,'' the Washington Post recently observed. Gangs have spread from a localized phenomenon to nationally franchised businesses, financed by drug money and armed with ever-higher caliber weaponry. We're fueling a level of violence rarely seen before, a violence now spilling over into areas that don't involve drugs.
We can't build new prisons fast enough to house all the drug users we want to put in them. In some states, education budgets are declining to guarantee sufficient money for jails. In our panic about drugs, we are willing to sacrifice not only our schools but our liberty. Forfeitures of property by drug users is rising into the hundreds of millions of dollars, and virtually all this revenue goes back into drug enforcement, creating an unhealthy symbiotic relationship between drug dealers and the police.
Last year, for the first time, military troops were used on marijuana raids. Strip-searches of high school students in Kansas and Missouri elicit little protest, even when no drugs are found. Anderson County, S.C., billboards announce, ''Need cash? Turn in a drug dealer.'' Informers receive as much as 25 percent of the assets seized from drug raids.
Public pronouncements notwithstanding, the evidence is piling up that the collateral damage from our war on drugs far exceeds the damage from drug use itself.
David Morris is a columnist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.