Drug testing nightmare

October 12, 1999|By Tom Teepen

SCHOOL boards hot to order their teachers to tinkle for them would do well to chill out instead. Yes, the Supreme Court just blew off a legal challenge to one district's requirement that teaching applicants take drug tests. But the operating sanction for public-sector or legally mandated drug testing is still that the job must be safety-sensitive.

An appellate court's finding that teaching involves safety concerns on some rough par with law enforcement or firefighting seems a considerable stretch. Best to await a definitive high court ruling.

Meantime, employers might profitably use the interim to study a recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union that calls the usefulness of drug testing into serious question.

Still fairly limited where the Constitution reaches, drug tests are virtually epidemic in the private sector. Some 50 million employees work under one or another testing regime. Testing is a $1 billion industry that aggressively markets its programs.

Is that money well spent? Avoiding even one drug-addled employee who might create an outsized legal liability is worth a pretty penny, but on average and in the case of most jobs, drug testing seems a solution in search of a problem.

Drug testing mainly catches marijuana users, but what is the point? Only about 5 percent of Americans use marijuana with any frequency and only a fifth of those -- 1 percent of the work force -- use it more or less daily. Hard drug use is even rarer.

A report by the National Academy of Sciences found that illegal drugs contribute little to work accidents and that the effects of off-duty use are negligible.

Meanwhile, a study of 63 high-tech companies, reported last year in the magazine Working USA, found that productivity was 16 percent lower in firms with pre-employment drug testing than in firms with no testing.

A 1991 analysis calculated that it cost the federal government $77,000 to catch each drug user. Even discounting for government inefficiency, the price is steep to finger employees who for the most part have no on-the-job drug problems.

There's a reasonable case for testing employees whose performance suggests a possible drug problem and for testing the limited numbers of workers who have substantial public-safety responsibilities.

But commercial huckstering and political pressure are forcing ever more employees into intrusive and humiliating drug tests.

Unless the Supreme Court begins enforcing its original limits firmly and unless employers develop some sense of proportion, we'll be reduced from a nation of free citizens to a shuffling line of suspects with specimen cups in one hand.

Tom Teepen is national correspondent for Cox Newspapers.

Pub Date: 10/12/99

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