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Our Golden Age

The fascination with urine remains undimmed through the ages. Until the arrival of scientific medicine, physicians subjected it to careful visual scrutiny, expecting the color and clarity to reveal an exact diagnosis. Today, it's the corporate class that seems transfixed by the predictive powers of piss: 80 percent of large employers insist on testing job applicants' urine--or occasionally hair or blood--for damning traces of illegal substances. You can be the best qualified applicant in all other ways, but if your urine speaks against you, you're out. Experience, skill, enthusiasm, and energy--pee trumps them all.

It's odd, given employers' lack of concern about the rest of their employees' private lives, that they take so much interest in the off-hour consumption of drugs. The members of the employing class, after all, don't seem to care whether their potential employees spend their weekends consuming kiddie porn or abusing their pets. Nor do most employers show the slightest concern about the adequacy of their employees' diets and housing arrangements. In fact, they will be delighted to hire you for $6 or $7 an hour even though, on wages like that, you will probably be unable to observe the most elementary proprieties, like living indoors and showering before showing up for work.

Odder still, especially for those who think of capitalism as the most "rational" of economic systems, drug testing doesn't work, even on the employers' rather Scroogelike terms. A report released last September by the ACLU, "Drug Testing: A Bad Investment," summarizes studies showing that drug testing does not lower absenteeism, improve workplace safety, or achieve any of the other goals claimed for it by the anti-drug warriors. This should be no surprise: The tests mainly detect marijuana, which lingers in the body far longer than cocaine or heroin, and drug testing labs are often alarmingly inaccurate, in both the false-negative and false-positive directions. In addition, smart drug users have all kinds of ways of foiling the test, from the herb goldenseal (available in health food stores) to vials of drug-free, battery-warmed urine (available on the Web). More to the point, most drug users confine their drug using to their off hours, when it can have little or no possible effect on their job performance. The residual mental effects of a weekend joint, for example, are about as powerful as those of a Saturday night beer--i.e., nil. Not to mention the fact that one of the most disabling and addicting drugs, alcohol, isn't usually tested for at all.

And what exactly would it mean for drug testing to "work," anyway? An argument could be made for testing airline pilots and school bus drivers, on the grounds that an off-hour user might, just possibly, be tempted to toke up while landing a 747 or driving on ice-coated streets. But retail and cleaning service workers? In my town, Winn-Dixie tests applicants for a $6-an-hour job stacking Cheerio boxes; Howard Johnson tests applicants for bed-making jobs. Hudson News, which can be found in New York area airports, greets customers with a sign boasting that it's a "drug-free workplace," but is the newspaper you buy there any more interesting if the cashier is an abstainer rather than a stoner? An alcoholic rather than a cokehead?

Speaking of newspapers, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post all test their editors and writers--a practice that may actually make these papers less interesting, or at least help account for their unrelieved blandness. This is not because druggies make better reporters (though who knows?), but because any journalist sheeplike enough to submit to a urine test should, on this evidence alone, be barred from a profession that claims to value fearlessly independent thinking.

In other areas, drug testing may actually be counterproductive. First, there's the cost. The ACLU reports that in 1990 the federal government spent $11.7 million to test 29,000 employees, only 153 of whom tested positive--amounting to a cost of $77,000 to detect each putative drug user! Then there's the likely effect of testing on morale. A 1998 study found that testing "reduced rather than enhanced productivity" by as much as 29 percent, apparently because it leads to a certain surliness among the workers.

So why, in contempt of all the evidence, does American business remain so slavishly addicted to drug testing? Part of the answer has to be that drug testing is now a billion dollar industry, meaning that an awful lot of people have a stake in its health and longevity. Capitalism is supposed to operate in a briskly rational fashion, but profits can perpetuate any kind of foolishness. Hence, for example, the congressional fondness for obsolete weapons systems: It doesn't matter if they can't fly or even if the Pentagon has adamantly rejected them; they keep Lockheed Martin and Boeing content.

Sheer herd mentality--"peer pressure," as it's known in the anti-drug movement--also contributes to the drug-testing habit. I once asked a hotel owner why he tests his employees, and he said, in so many words: Everyone else is doing it, and I don't want to be the one who gets stuck with all the druggies and lowlifes who can't get a job anywhere else in town. This sounded vaguely reasonable until he added that he couldn't, ha ha, pass one of those tests himself, which made me wonder: If one pothead can make all the company's top decisions, why can't another one be trusted to push a broom?

Nor can we eliminate the kinkier charms of drug testing--to the employer, that is. In some testing protocols, the hapless worker has to pull down her pants in front of a lab technician or attendant and then pee in the presence of that forbidding audience. This is not a medical procedure; it's a rite of humiliation, designed to send the employee the message: We own you, all of you, and our ownership extends way beyond 5 p.m. Similarly for those intrusive pre-employment "personality tests," with true-or-false propositions like "I often feel overwhelmed by self-pity." It's not really our urine that they want--or our blood or our hair--but our souls.

There are a few small, hopeful signs. Faced with a severe labor shortage, some Internet and computer firms are abandoning testing rather than drive away qualified applicants. In safety-sensitive industries, a few companies have taken up the far more pertinent practice of "performance testing"--gauging an employee's motor skills just prior to work.

But the damage to democracy has already been done. In a decade of testing, millions of Americans have grown inured to this invasion of their bodies and private lives, readily trading their Fourth Amendment protection from "unreasonable search" in exchange for a job. And submission, no less than drugs, can be a hard habit to break. EndBlock

  • Why is America so slavishly addicted to drug testing?

More by Barbara Ehrenreich

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