Academic journal article Public Personnel Management

Applicant Drug Testing: An Intriguing Odyssey

Academic journal article Public Personnel Management

Applicant Drug Testing: An Intriguing Odyssey

Article excerpt

Applicant drug testing is one of the most complex and controversial issues confronting public employers today. Initiating applicant drug testing will result in an intriguing odyssey with many political, legal and personnel policy challenges. The State of California recently completed such a three-year odyssey. This article has a twofold purpose. First, to chronicle briefly California's odyssey as an example of how public policy is developed for a controversial personal issue. Second, to identify the key issues in regulating applicant drug testing on how such issues were resolved in an operational context.

To test or not to test; that is the question. Indeed, whether or not to do applicant drug testing is one of the most legally complex and programmatically controversial questions confronting public employers today.[1] If a public employer does decide to embark on the road leading to applicant drug testing, it will prove to be an intriguing odyssey with many political, legal and personnel policy challenges.

Beginning in mid-1986, the California State Personnel Board (SPB) started such an odyssey, searching for a path through the legal and policy thicket association with applicant drug testing. It has been an arduous task to identify the issues, propose solutions and cope with concerns through several policy analysis iterations. We finally have applicant drug testing regulations which became effective in May 1989.

The article has a twofold purpose. First, to describe the chronology of this odyssey as an example of how public policy is developed for a controversial personnel issue. Second, to identify the key issues in regulating applicant drug testing and how such issues have been resolved in an operational context. This synoptic case study may be useful to other public entities confronted with the question of whether or not to undertake a similar odyssey.

Background - Chronology

The odyssey begins in 1985 when the California Department of Corrections opted to initiate drug testing for applicants for the entry-level class of Correctional Officer. The Department was experiencing a major expansion, anticipating hiring 30,000 new officers in a ten-year span. Substance abuse among those in the predominant age group of potential applicants was a major concern of the Department.[2] For all peace officer applicants, there is a State statute which mandates that they be (a) a good moral character; and (b) found to be free from any physical, emotional or mental condition which might adversely affect the exercise of the powers of a peace officer. The Department perceived this to be their authorization to administer a drug test.

The staff of the SPB became aware that a drug test was being administered as part of the physical examination when an applicant appealed his disqualification from the examination due to a positive drug test result. As part of our responsibility to oversee departmental civil service examining, we received the drug testing process the Department of Corrections had established. As a result, we directed that certain changes be made.

At this point, it was evident that the SPB needed to establish a comprehensive policy on applicant drug testing since expansion beyond the one department was likely and there was a myriad of facets to be analyzed. Suitable regulation of applicant drug testing became imperative.

On September 24, 1986, Governor Deukmejian issued Executive Order D-58-86 which established the goal of a drug-free State workplace and directed that policies be developed to achieve this goal. In December 1986, the SPB conducted an informational hearing on drugs in the workplace. Authoritative persons were invited to present information on such topics as: scope of the problem; legislative initiatives; legal implications; program experiences; testing protocol and technology; and employee education and assistance programs. This public hearing provided a comprehensive overview for a11 interested parties and served to focus on the key issues in developing and implementing a drug testing policy. …

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