The GOP's Drug-Testing Dragnet | The Nation


The GOP's Drug-Testing Dragnet

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“It’s like learning that somebody drank beer three days ago,” says Bill Piper, director of national affairs with the Drug Policy Alliance. “What’s that going to say about how functional they are at work today? It’s unscientific and discriminatory.”

This story was produced with support from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

About the Author

Isabel Macdonald
Isabel Macdonald is a freelance journalist and former communications director of the media watch group Fairness and...

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But the Reagan administration saw drug tests as essential for cracking down on a population largely outside the reach of law enforcement: people smoking pot in the privacy of their own homes. “Because anyone using drugs stands a very good chance of being discovered, with disqualification from employment as a possible consequence, many will decide that the price of using drugs is just too high,” read a 1989 White House report.

In the decades since, drug-testing companies have marketed urine tests as a wise investment for all employers. They claim that any drug user is a less productive worker, and more likely to cause workplace accidents, show up late for work or simply quit. Such claims persist despite a 1994 review, by the National Academy of Sciences, of all the independent research published on workplace drug testing, which found little support to back up those claims.

Indeed, one study of employers in the high-tech sector found that drug testing “reduced rather than enhanced productivity.” Performance-based tests, researchers found, are far more effective at assessing a worker’s ability to perform safety-sensitive jobs than drug testing. Unlike urine tests, these tests detect drug impairment and a host of other factors (fatigue, stress, alcohol) far more likely to compromise a worker’s concentration than past marijuana use.

Nevertheless, the escalation of the drug war would prove more powerful than the evidence that undermined it, producing a powerful coalition of government and private industry players determined to convince employers of the wisdom of monitoring their workers’ bladders.

* * *

One of the entrepreneurs drawn to the burgeoning drug-testing industry was Elaine Taulé. A longtime DATIA board member, she says she got into the business because she wanted to test her own sons. When she told this to the staff of National Health Laboratories, a major drug-testing lab, in 1987, they were incredulous. “The lab just sort of looked at me and said, ‘What! Do you really think your 17-year-old is going to pee in a cup?’” But Taulé was insistent. “If I say, ‘It’s either your urine or your car keys,’ I may get his urine,” she said. She went on to found her own drug-testing business, NMS Management Services, in 1989.

Taulé’s timing was impeccable. Around the time she started testing her sons, other, much larger players were entering the field, including the Swiss pharmaceutical giant Hoffmann-La Roche, the manufacturer of Valium and a range of popular sleeping pills. The company established one of the first major drug-testing labs in America and won an early urine-testing contract with the Pentagon, leading to $300 million in annual sales by 1987. The following year, Hoffmann-La Roche stepped up its sales efforts with the launch of a major PR and lobbying campaign to “mobilize corporate America to confront the illicit drug problem in their workplaces.” The drug manufacturer called its new campaign “Corporate Initiatives for a Drug-Free Workplace.”

Before long, with the help of a New Jersey–based lawyer named David Evans, Hoffmann-La Roche was organizing workshops around the country to convince employers to set up drug-testing programs. In an interview with The Nation, Evans likened his role to that of “a doctor coming in to talk about how to set up a medical device.” During that first campaign, 1,000 employers signed up. “There’s clearly a momentum here,” gushed Irwin Lerner, then the drug company’s president, at the campaign’s launch in 1988. “I think we’ve tapped a chord among corporate America.”

The sleeping pill manufacturer’s enthusiasm evidently impressed Reagan himself, who delivered a keynote address at the launch of Hoffmann-La Roche’s Corporate Initiatives campaign. Reagan praised the company for making “it clear that not only are drug users not part of the ‘in crowd,’ but unless they quit taking illegal drugs they’ll be part of the out-of-work crowd.”

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