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Drug Screening Is Becoming the Standard for Private Employers


October 1996

According to surveys by the Institute for a Drug Free Workplace, the number of major U.S. companies that drug test employees and applicants has risen 277% since 1987. Most of the growth occurred from 1988 to 1993, after federal regulations mandated testing for a growing number of occupations (Leef Smith, "If You Want a Job, Better 'Just Say No,'" Washington Post, September 18, 1996, p. A1).

Drug testing experts estimate that one-third of all new U.S. job applicants will be screened for drug use this year. If on-the-job screening is included, as many as 30 million U.S. workers are subject to drug testing annually. "The number of people being tested has exponentially increased," said Eric Greenberg, director of management studies for the American Management Association. Currently, 98% of Fortune 200 companies use drug tests to screen potential employees.

Many corporate officials say that drug testing helps them cut down on accidents in the workplace, and reduces workers' compensation claims and sick days. Others claim that it helps them attract the best applicants, leaving drug users to apply at companies that do not screen for drugs. "If you don't test, then you get the people we reject," said Home Depot Employee Service Coordinator Layne Thome.

Home Depot tests all of its more than 90,000 employees nationwide for drug use before they are hired or promoted. Potential employees who test positive for illegal substances are not hired, and current employees who test positive are fired. But Black & Decker's North American Power Tools Division reacts differently when testing its 6,000 employees. Job applicants who test positive are turned away, but employees who test positive are not "automatically terminated," said Gene Corbett, director of human resources. He said, "We give them a chance to rehabilitate themselves."

The process is a waste of resources and a violation of civil liberties, according to the ACLU. They contend that a decade of drug testing has failed to produce evidence that testing curbs workplace problems and drug abuse. "The evidence shows that [drug testing] is not only morally wrong but a colossal waste of money," said Lewis Maltby, director of the ACLU's Workplace Rights Project. Maltby argues that people "shouldn't be fired for what they do in their off time unless it affects their job performance." Greenberg agrees that there is not enough evidence to show if testing cuts down on overall drug use, but he says it does let the company identify specific drug users. Though he supports drug testing, Eric Wish, PhD, director of the Center for Substance Abuse Research at the University of Maryland, said, "Still, I don't know of any evidence that someone who casually uses marijuana. . .has more accidents than anyone else."

A spokesman at the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) said their drug testing information hotline receives more than 400 calls a week. Most calls are from people trying to beat drug screens. Some callers try to dilute the marijuana metabolites in their system with fluids, while others swap urine with someone else or add chemicals to their urine. "We get calls from people who say, 'I'm about to drink a quart of bleach. Is that okay?'" said NORML executive director Allen St. Pierre. "It speaks volumes about people's desperation to pass these tests."