Urine Trouble

Since the late 1980s, the degrading ritual of peeing into a cup on demand has become increasingly familiar to American employees. In 1996, 81 percent of the large companies surveyed by the American Management Association had drug testing programs, compared to 21 percent in 1987.

This trend has been accompanied by remarkably little skepticism about the cost-effectiveness of drug testing. A recent report from the American Civil Liberties Union seeks to remedy that situation, arguing that drug testing is a bad investment for employers.

The report shows that commonly accepted claims about the impact of drugs on the workplace have little or no basis in fact. The widely cited estimate that illegal drug use costs $100 billion in "lost productivity" each year, for instance, is based on a simplistic study that "compared the annual income of households that contained a daily marijuana user to the annual income of households that did not."

It’s quite a leap to attribute the difference in earnings to drug use, especially since other comparisons--between households with past-month pot smokers and those without, for example--found no such gap. It’s an even bigger jump to conclude that the income difference reflects drug-impaired productivity, since the study did not even attempt to measure job performance.

Similarly, supporters of drug testing often cite authoritative-sounding numbers concerning accident rates, employee absences, use of medical benefits, and worker’s compensation claims. These figures are said to come from something called the "Firestone Study." But as the ACLU report notes, no such study exists.

A 1994 review by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that "the data...do not provide clear evidence of the deleterious effects of drugs other than alcohol on safety and other job performance indicators." That conclusion remains accurate, the ACLU finds.

"Absenteeism is the only workplace performance measure on which drug users and non-users consistently differ," the report says. Since the studies do not control for age or sex, this finding may be due to the fact that drug users are disproportionately young men, who tend to have higher absence rates whether or not they use drugs.

If the costs of illegal drug use are hard to verify, the costs of drug testing are pretty clear. A 1990 study of testing at federal agencies found that it cost $77,000 for every positive result. And since the vast majority of drug users are not abusers, the ACLU notes, the cost of identifying an employee whose drug use is actually affecting his work (assuming that such an employee would not be identified through other means) could be 10 times as high.

The ACLU argues that drug testing also makes it harder to attract highly qualified applicants, raises employer costs by pushing casual drug users into unnecessary "treatment," and undermines morale. That last effect may explain why a 1998 study of high-tech firms found that drug testing was associated with reduced productivity.

The obvious question is why profit-maximizing companies would spend money on tests that do not achieve their proclaimed goals. The answer may be that employers do not really expect drug testing to increase productivity or prevent accidents.

After all, urinalysis does not measure impairment; it detects the presence of drug metabolites. The drug may have been ingested days or even weeks before the test.

The test does not distinguish between a pot smoker who gets high only on weekends and a pot smoker who comes to work stoned. And it does not look for people who are drunk, hung over, or impaired by lack of sleep.

Drug testing does not make much sense as a way of identifying inefficient or inattentive employees. But it does make sense as a way of projecting a responsible, "drug-free" image to the government, stockholders, customers, and the general public.

This image is a sham, and not just because the tests do not screen for legal intoxicants. The most common form of drug testing is pre-employment screening, which is announced in advance, so a drug user who is looking for a job need only abstain until after he’s hired.

I once asked a representative from one of the companies that sells drug tests to explain the point of such a requirement, since it does not really screen out drug users. "It’s an IQ test," he said. If employers are looking for your brains in your urine, maybe they’re the ones who are on drugs.

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