The Golden Age

How Americans learned to stop worrying and love workplace drug testing


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 suspicionless 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 résumés, no organization wanted to end up as the preferred haven of the pharmacologically incorrect. So even companies that weren't doing business with the government felt compelled to break out the tiny plastic cups. By 1996, 81 percent of the large businesses surveyed by the American Management Association said they were doing drug testing of some kind.

Today, workplace drug testing is a billion-dollar industry. It has also spawned a thriving anti-testing industry and entirely new crimes. In Indiana, simply owning a Whizzinator—a comically complex but allegedly effective device that consists of a fake latex penis, a harness, synthetic urine, and heating pads—can lead to a 180-day jail term and a $1,000 fine. (This law hasn't stopped people from buying the $150 unit. The company that produces the Whizzinator says it has sold more than 300,000 of them since 1999.) In 2004, a South Carolina man got six months in a state prison simply for selling his clean urine over the Internet.

And around the country, emergency rooms have reported an increase in niacin overdoses, especially among teens. Various websites suggest that taking large amounts of niacin can prevent the detection of THC, marijuana's main psychoactive ingredient. In fact, it's mostly just a good way to overdose on niacin.

Observers still debate how much safer and more productive drug testing makes the workplace. But there's at least one outfit that has no complaints about its efficacy. Forty million drug tests at an average of $30 a pop equals a $1.2 billion subsidy the federal government receives from the private sector each year to help prosecute its endless War on Drugs.

The private sector's largesse isn't limited to money and manpower: Workplace urine collection is a gateway drug to stronger forms of government coercion. As soon as we got used to dropping our pants at work, the government moved on to schools. "Fifteen years ago, school drug testing was too controversial," John P. Walters, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, told the Los Angeles Times in 2007. Now that workplace drug testing is no more controversial than Casual Fridays, it no longer seems so invasive to make any teenager who wants to join the school choir publicly prove his chemical chastity.

This year, the federal government has earmarked $17.9 million to underwrite high school drug testing programs. That the government is extending the totalitarian, zero-tolerance perspective of the Drug Free Workplace Act of 1988 to our nation's high schools makes perfectly symmetrical sense. After all, that simplistic edict took its ideological heart from a public policy initiative initially aimed at school kids, Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign.

The "Just Say No" campaign insisted that all drugs were equally dangerous, all use was bad, and nothing was permitted. Workplace drug testing does the same, only for adults. ("The professional who pointedly ignores covert coke-sniffing by his or her colleagues must eventually come to realize that a person can no more tolerate a little recreational drug use than he or she can tolerate a little recreational smallpox," the Commission on Organized Crime's 1986 report declared.)

When organizations like the Institute for a Drug-Free Workplace attempt to quantify the impact of drugs in the workplace, they consider only their negative effects. But what about the surreptitious line of coke in the bathroom that helps a salesman meet his monthly quota, or the afternoon pot break out by the dumpsters that keeps a dishwasher sane? Given the stresses of the contemporary work world, how come only Air Force pilots flying bombing missions over Afghanistan and Iraq have unregulated freedom to enhance their performance with go pills and no-go pills? Couldn't we all use a Dexedrine now and then to get to 5 o'clock?

Talk about a pipe dream! Today "Just Say No" is kitschy nostalgia but the Drug-Free Workplace Act remains in full effect. Had the federal government started knocking on our front doors in 1988, cup in hand, demanding compulsory urinalysis, there would have been widespread outrage. Instead, in a move akin to Tom Sawyer convincing his pals to give him their marbles for the opportunity to whitewash Aunt Polly's fence, the government outsourced its soaking of the Fourth Amendment to the private sector. It was one of the most ingenious policy decisions of the last 20 years.

Contributing Editor Greg Beato writes from San Francisco.