Drug Policy

The Specter of Productive Pot Smokers

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According to a new report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, about 8 percent of full-time workers report that they have used an illegal drug, typically marijuana, in the previous month. The finding, based on 2002–2004 data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, is not at all surprising, since this is the same as the percentage of the overall population 12 and older that reports past-month use of illegal drugs. Well, I suppose it may come as a surprise to people who believe illegal drug users are inherently unemployable. But there's no reason to assume that someone who admits to smoking pot in the last month has a drug problem, let alone a drug problem that affects his ability to work. In an interview with A.P., Anne Skinstad, a psychologist who directs the Prairielands Addiction Technology Transfer Center at the University of Iowa, nevertheless "called the survey's results 'very worrisome' because there are fewer treatment programs than there used to be to assist employees and employers with a dependence on drugs." To her credit, she added:

I used to train supervisors to detect chronic use and intervene as early as possible, and that is a very good, constructive way rather than firing people. Some employers want drug testing. I'm not sure that's the way I would like to go. What I think I would like to focus on is employee performance.

Sadly, this is almost a revolutionary concept at companies that have adopted drug testing (usually pre-employment screening) as a way of showing they are good corporate citizens, complying with regulations, or qualifying for government contracts. The NSDUH data indicate that 49 percent of employees work for companies that do some sort of drug testing, the same as the percentage in similar surveys that SAMSHA did a decade ago. Here is my 2002 reason feature story on the subject, in which I argue that the disparity between employers' policies regarding alcohol (which focus on drinking that affects job performance) and their policies regarding other drugs (which demand complete abstinence) is almost entirely a result of the government's similarly puzzling pharmacological distinctions.