Magazine article Reason

The Golden Age: How Americans Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Workplace Drug Testing

Magazine article Reason

The Golden Age: How Americans Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Workplace Drug Testing

Article excerpt

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. It connects entities as disparate as Britney Spears, the Miami Dolphins, the Tecumseh High School Science Club, the cashier at your local Walgreen's, even George W. Bush. 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? Return, for a moment, to 1988. The Cosby Show was dominating the Nielsen ratings for the fourth straight year. Donald Trump was enjoying the bulletproof sauna in his classy new 272-foot yacht. Congress was busy crafting the Drug-Free Workplace Act.

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 suspicion-less 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. "We get an overwhelming number of calls a day," a director at one drug-testing lab told the Tulsa World after the law went into effect. "More than 90 percent say, 'I've got to do something, but I don't understand what. Can you help?' Most of them are not pleased. It's just another cost, a significant cost to a small company."

While many employers resented their conscription into the War on Drugs, the policy had a domino effect. As soon as some companies started making prospective employees submit biological resumes, no organization wanted to end up as the preferred haven of the pharmacologically incorrect. …

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