Civil Liberties

Pissing Contest

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Since the late 1980s, the degrading ritual of peeing into a cup on demand has become increasingly familar to American employees. This trend has been accompanied by remarkably little skepticism about the cost-effectiveness of drug testing. A new report from the American Civil Liberties Union (available at www.aclu.org/issues/worker/drugtesting1999.pdf) 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 illegal drug use in the workplace have little or no basis in fact. The widely cited estimate that 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." Supporters of drug testing often cite authoritative-sounding numbers from something called the "Firestone Study." No such study exists.

"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 absentee 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 evident. 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 forcing casual drug users into "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.