Complaint of the Week: Pre-Employment Drug Testing is Almost Never a Good Idea

I am opposed to (many/most) drug tests.

To be clear here, I am not just talking about the “take a drug test to receive government benefits” variety. Although certainly those too. They are inherently insulting (they assume that a significant number of those receiving aid are using or addicted), classist (we don’t make middle class people take drug tests to, say, attend a Smithsonian and those are also funded by taxpayer dollars), are not thought through (if one was to test positive, there is no system for getting said person help, which would save money and improve society as a whole in the long run), and more expensive than if we simply just gave out the aid in the first place.

Nor am I talking about the random ones companies lay on their employees, leagues lay on their athletes, schools lay on their students. Those are terrible too, proceeding for a guilty until proven innocent model that we supposedly don’t believe in in the U.S. (Louisiana notwithstanding).

But like I said, those are not the drug tests I am objecting to.

I am thinking more like pre-employment drug tests. The kind done without cause. Or rather, the only cause being, “this person applied for a job here, interviewed well, fulfilled our sought qualifications, had strong experience and good references.”

Now before we go any further, I should indicate that I acknowledge the need for some drug tests. Jobs involving transportation or heavy machinery. Jobs involving kids. Jobs involving the prosecution or punishment of criminals. Jobs involving the treatment of the chemically addicted. To name but a few. But, I would stipulate, most of those tests are more about shielding a company from liability or public and potentially damaging charges of hypocrisy than my actual belief that someone who tested positive for drug use at a pre-employment screening would be unable to do said job.

The jobs that the tests really bother me for include corporate office work, tradesman, phone bank operator, fast food cook, parking attendant, and so on and such of.

I know, I know. You do not want some druggie making your burger. Or some strung out addict in the cubicle next to yours. And neither do companies and corporations. Hence the pre-test.

But there are so many problems with that.

For one, and I know many of you will roll your eyes hard at this one, but tough it out, there’s the community/justice reason. Someone who has used or is using drugs, be it recreationally or out of addiction is more likely to act lawfully if he or she is gainfully employed. It’s a simple formula but a true one: a person with enough money to pay their bills and fund their habits are significantly less likely to engage in theft or violent crime.

Fine though. I can sense you are uncompelled. Consider some other facts. First, it is possible to use a substance and not be addicted to it. In the same way that there are alcoholics and also people who drink without ever becoming alcoholics, so too are there people who will use illegal drugs who do not become addicted. (We’ll get back to alcohol later, don’t worry). A lot of illegal drugs are MORE addictive, I grant you, and more/more quickly devastating that booze—which is why I’m not quite throwing in with making all substances legal; there is a public health interest in using the law to curtail/prevent drug use and abuse—but the point remains. No matter what D.A.R.E. taught you, drugs are not “one use=hooked for life.” I’m not saying test the theory, but I am saying that, say, Crystal could’ve used cocaine at a party on Thursday, and test positive during a surprise screening days later and that not mean she is addicted or even using with any regularity.

Additionally, most drug tests are kind of lousy at catching the “really scary” substances. Cocaine, heroin, PCP…these break down and leave the body fairly quickly. The one drug that does not? Marijuana. The increasingly accepted least dangerous and/or addictive of the illegal substances despite a fear campaign stretching back years and a schedule class that makes it sound deadly, most people would agree the marijuana carries little risk of accidental overdose, intense or dangerous addiction/withdrawal cycles, and fairly limited side effects. And yet, the easiest to pick up on a test. So if you smoked occasionally including the last time three weeks ago and Robbie prefers his smoking involve a pipe filled with crack cocaine but he holds off for three weeks, you are the one not getting the job while he sails through.

Oh and the most commonly abused substance, alcohol? Most drug tests do not test for that at all. You still a little buzzed from last night? Eat a little peanut butter to mask the smell, do not do much talking, provide your urine, and leave. No one will be the wiser.

The thing is, that’s ok. Because, again, it is possible to drink, to smoke, to use and to still be a good employee. If you hire a habitual pot user who nonetheless shows up on time, does her work quickly and efficiently, makes strong suggestions for change, pitches in when needed, and otherwise does not let her use impact her job, well then, she is still a good employee, is she not?

If, on the other hand, she is a teetotaler who arrives late, leaves early, does not observe the chain of command, is frequently rude or inappropriate, and generally is only out for herself, well she’s still a terrible employee, right? And you would fire her, yes? Well those options exist for alcoholics, drug uses, and drug addicts as well. Just because a bad/rude employee loves cocaine, he is not suddenly protected from being fired. In fact, if you can demonstrate he is using on the property or his substance use is interfering with his co-workers’ ability to function in the office, he is EASIER to fire.

Last, but not least, take into consideration the rate of drug use in the U.S. For one, although it has risen over the years, when one controls for marijuana, that increase actually disappears. So, the “need” for tests now as opposed to any other point in our history is not reflected by any kind of increase in population wide drug use or addiction.

For another, although this state is almost a decade old now, about 23.2 million Americans are effected by substance addiction, or about 10% of the population at that time. Now the way addiction is tracked is that once you are an addict, you are an addict, so, presumably some portion of those in this pool are in recovery. Since about 10% are seeking treatment at any given time—more would, I argue, if we changed our approach to addiction to encourage that, but that’s a different argument for another time—so let’s just say they are the ones in recovery and the other 21.0 million are not. And we can continue to trim the number, taking out addicts under 16 (16 is the earliest one can legally work in the US), those with significant mental or physical illnesses that prevent them from working, the retired (Baby Boomers account for a fairly high percentage of addicts), and the indigent and homeless. Now, you’d be looking at a much smaller number, yes? Let’s for arguments sake, so, conservatively, the number is halved. Now we are talking less than 5% of those in the U.S. are addicted and in the employable pool.

Consider not all of those addicted are seeking jobs, either because they already have one or other reasons (including, yes, too stoned to do so).  The number shrinks further. Then think of those addicts who’s substance is alcohol—which will not show up—or an opiate, a stimulant, a depressant—which very well might now—and that number drops again. So what we see is that this practice, which can be embarrassing, invasive, dehumanizing, and based on an assumption of prospective employee guilt, actually only “protects” corporations from a very limited number of people, considering. And that’s not even taking into account the ability of those who have used but don’t often or use often but function to work despite a positive test.

It is a practice that yields little results for a decent cost and is based on specious logic. I know we are in an era of not questions corporations, ever really, but…that does not make random drug testing a good or smart idea. Or right, for that matter.