The Drug Testing Epidemic
Once sold as a public safety measure, drug testing now serves to enforce a social disapproval of cannabis use, enrich drug testing industries, inflate drug rehab statistics, and indoctrinate children into a culture of surveillance and control.
In Pennsylvania, Christopher McDougall’s eleven-year-old daughter was barred from joining the school orchestra. The reason? He would not allow the school district to collect a cup of his child’s urine to test for drug metabolites. The ACLU has sued Pennsylvania, since a 2003 state Supreme Court decision requires there be some specific assumption school kids are engaged in drug activity. Nobody seems to think the Swift Middle School orchestra in central Pennsylvania is producing the next Tony Montana, Heisenberg, or Pablo Escobar among its crop of sixth graders, but that hasn’t stopped the school from requiring any child who wishes to participate in extra-curricular activities to submit to the whiz quiz.
Seizing the urine from children who merely wish to participate in a school activity like band or chess club is a far cry from the original justification we were given to surrender our Fourth Amendment rights to employers. It was sold to us in the late 1980s as an instrument of public safety following a well-publicized 1987 train crash in Baltimore where the Amtrak engineer killed in the accident tested positive for marijuana. The 1988 Drug-Free Workplace Act provided the impetus for employers to begin voluntary suspicion-less testing of potential new hires and voluntary random testing of current workers, where “voluntary” means “if you want to be employed”. By 1991, Congress authorized mandatory drug testing for anyone involved in a “safety sensitive” job covered by the Department of Transportation (an agency which, to this day, maintains that a positive marijuana test tells us nothing about whether a pilot, driver, or conductor is high on the job.)
By 1995, the Vernonia School District in Oregon had implemented drug testing for all high school and junior high athletes, citing the need for student safety in potentially risky athletic competitions. The Supreme Court upheld the district’s right to test kids, even though the drug “epidemic” Vernonia cited as justification consisted of twelve positive tests over more than four years. Now, over a series of court rulings, schools are free to impose drug testing on students as young as eleven for participation in anything beyond just attending class. Some high schools even require drug tests to get a permit for parking at school.
The drug testing business is a profitable one. Exact figures are tough to calculate, but the drug testing industry is easily a multi-billion dollar operation. The Drug and Alcohol Testing Industry Association, or DATIA, represents some 1,200 drug testing companies and retains a lobbying firm in Washington DC. Having convinced most employers and many schools to use their drug testing products, the lobbyists from DATIA and other industry supporters are now targeting state governments. They’re spending hundreds of thousands of lobbying dollars to convince lawmakers to require drug testing for most forms of public assistance. Where these programs are already in place, states find they spend more taxpayer dollars on drug testing than the money they supposedly saved by denying benefits to those who failed the test, and that poor people fail the test less often than the general public.
Recently there have also been well-publicized cases of mismanagement and malfeasance at drug testing laboratories. One Boston drug testing lab was run by a woman alleged to have tampered with and outright faked drug test results in cases that could involve more than 40,000 defendants over her nine year employment. In Houston, nearly 5,000 convictions could have been affected by a crime lab tech who faked test results. In San Francisco, one drug testing lab was ordered closed after an employee was caught skimming painkillers and cocaine from evidence for herself.
Drug testing is also a lynchpin of the new “kinder, gentler drug war” strategies promoted by Kevin Sabet and Project SAM, the misnamed “Smart Approaches to Marijuana”. SAM promotes the use of so-called “drug courts”, which have expanded from a dozen or so in the beginning of the 1990s to over 2,700 today, to evaluate marijuana users caught by police for the “choice” of prison or drug rehab. In these rehabs, pot smokers are drug tested with the threat of going to prison if they test positive. It is no wonder that so many of these “addicts” then successfully complete their drug-court-ordered program. With the great number of pot smokers making up the population of drug rehabs, their successful “treatment” then boosts the success rate statistics of both the rehabs and the drug courts. Now the drug testing industry can point to those figures as a selling point for more drug testing.
Fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed that one day, his children would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I doubt he envisioned that someday his grandchildren’s eligibility for employment and his great-grandchildren’s fitness for playing violin at school would be judged by the content of their urine.