Drug tests and employment

BASEBALL Commissioner Peter Ueberroth has announced a balanced plan aimed at striking out drug abuse within that sport. Unfortunately, that cannot also be said for the President's Commission on Organized Crime, which has recommended that almost all American workers be tested for drugs. The crime commission recommends that all federal employes should be tested for drugs. Also, the commission recommends that federal contracts could not be awarded to any firm unless its employees submit to drug tests. Finally, the commission suggests that all employers in the US should consider drug testing for their employees.

The commission's report properly underscores the seriousness of the drug problem within the larger American society -- and the need for stepped-up antidrug efforts by law-enforcement agencies, as well as voluntary programs by businesses, social agencies, church groups, the home, and so on. But the crime commission's plan suggesting that almost all Americans should eventually be tested for drugs is a highly dubious proposition. Mandatory drug testing as a condition of employment raises serious objections.

Constitutionally, such testing carries an implication of wrongdoing or deleterious conduct on the part of an individual where no adverse conduct has necessarily been alleged. There is, in other words, an immediate presumption of guilt. Socially, mandatory testing would drastically alter the relationship between employers and employees. If mandatory drug testing is required as a condition to work, what is to preclude mandatory testing for other suspected diseases or physical infirmities, or even requiring genetic tests to identify a ``susceptibility'' to certain conditions, as some businesses are now calling for? Finally, drug tests are not considered totally accurate within the medical community.

Is there a danger we are moving toward a society where every time a worker turns around he or she must take another examination or be subjected to another physical test as a condition of employment?

The crime commission approach misses the mark. It is demeaning to workers and constitutionally questionable. By contrast, in the case of major league baseball, where drug usuage is admittedly a serious problem, the Ueberroth plan would have to be considered a middle-of-the-road approach that is geared essentially to voluntary participation and rehabilitation, rather than to punishment.

At least one player, Keith Hernandez of the New York Mets, says that he will appeal the ruling. He argues he came forward voluntarily. Such a challenge is to be expected in the long process of establishing a drug-free pro sports climate.

Ueberroth's sanctions do not automatically bar any player from participating in this year's season. Hernandez and six other players -- as a condition of playing -- must donate 10 percent of this year's salaries to antidrug programs, participate in hometown drug prevention programs, and submit to mandatory drug tests for the rest of their baseball careers. Some 14 other players were given more limited punishments.

The players union and baseball in general should work out a mutual agreement for drug testing -- the direction Ueberroth is heading. Two-fifths of the players already have drug testing clauses in their contracts.

What needs to be emphasized is that such antidrug agreements are voluntary agreements found in individual contracts. And there are some professions (related to public safety, for example) where mutually agreed upon testing might not be unreasonable.

Drug abuse destroys careers and families. In the case of athletics, it puts a terrible stain on sports, which is followed so closely, and imitated so widely, by the public. Drug abuse needs to be stamped out and the abuser rehabilitated. But society needs to do so in a way that does not create problems at least as serious as those it attempts to address.

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