Properly Used, Random Drug Testing Works

QUITE aside from the tragic waste of millions of lives and minds that result from the use of illegal narcotics, not to mention that drug abuse is the most frequent cause of crime and violence in our large cities, we are paying an enormous price in productivity and dedication to traditional American values like hard work and competitiveness. Can we in good conscience continue to brush aside the most effective deterrent to drug abuse - accountability? It is time to explode the myth that random drug testing is unreliable and an anathema to our civil rights. The bugaboo of random urinalysis has paralyzed industry and business for years. Fear of being accused of Big Brotherism, and of the lawsuits and publicity that accompany them, has kept employers from helping their employees conquer the cancer of drug abuse that eats away at productivity and the work ethic.

The paralysis has been compounded in the past by an astounding tendency to deny drug abuse problems. That myth, of course, allows an organization to disavow the need for action.

For business, drug abuse translates into frequent absences, a decline in productivity and work attitudes, violation of security rules, and a host of other costly problems. Not to mention the incalculable cost of skewed judgment caused by substance abuse. A survey taken by a major life insurance company, Marsh McLennan Inc., of the Fortune 1,000 CEOs, governors, and mayors indicates that 88 percent of those executives believe substance abuse is ``a very significant'' problem - more than double the number who thought so five years ago. That survey estimated the cost of drug abuse to the nation's economy at $60 billion to $65 billion a year. As a result many corporations have begun broad-based programs aimed specifically at drug abuse.

But most companies still hesitate to use one of the most effective weapons against drug abuse: random testing. Fear of negative public opinion and lawsuits from civil rights groups and unions is the main reason. But combined with a comprehensive, compassionate-but-firm policy, testing works.

The most extensive and successful testing program to date is the one first adopted by the US Navy, then throughout the armed services. In 1980 a Department of Defense survey revealed that 47 percent of the Navy's 18- to 24-year-olds were using drugs. The reactions were classic: first disbelief, then denial. But later urinalysis tests supported the survey results. It was clear that decisive action was needed.

Random testing was only a part of a comprehensive and complex series of programs that we designed to treat the whole person. Our goal was deterrence, not detection, although we made it clear there would be zero tolerance for drug abuse.

We set up education and counseling programs, reinforced security guidelines, and supplied creative alternatives to drug abuse. We also toughened our stand on alcohol abuse, at the same time improving assistance programs. All of these were structured within a policy framework aimed at getting rid of the abuse, not the abuser. Immunity was guaranteed to those who sought help. Punishment in the form of less-than-honorable discharge was sure for repeat offenders.

We soon discovered that random testing was the cornerstone of our program. More than 80 percent of the sailors surveyed said that testing was the No. 1 deterrent. Significantly, many said they would go back to drugs if the testing stopped.

The military's track record on testing is extensive. The Navy alone conducts more than 10 million tests each year. Every sailor - from top admiral to new recruit - is tested for seven illicit drugs on a random, no-notice, no-exemption basis. Their constitutional rights under the Fourth and Fifth Amendments are vigorously protected, and rigorous checks and balances, both technical and judgmental, ensure quality control and integrity throughout the system, from collection to laboratory tests to an exhaustive and decisive leadership-review process. Most important, a case is never decided on the results of a lab test alone. The onus was always on the commander to prove guilt, in terms of intent to use narcotics as well as the presence of drugs.

The reliability of test results was measured by inserting dummy specimens into the chain of custody without the laboratory's knowledge. Not one of the more than 50,000 dummy tests has come up false-positive.

The bottom line on the military's antidrug abuse program is that substance abuse is down to less than 5 percent, and productivity is at an all-time high.

Properly applied and overseen, testing is a superb tool for ridding the workplace of drug abuse. It detects the substance abuser; it deters others from violating the law; and it reaffirms to the majority of workers who don't use drugs that employers care and support them against drugs in the workplace, encouraging peer pressure.

In the transportation and manufacturing industries, testing has contributed dramatically to the reduction of accidents and to improved performance. We are only recently beginning to track the correlation between performance and drug abuse. The Navy recently released a report showing that 81 percent of the recruits who tested negative for drug use stayed in the service with good performance records. Of those who tested positive, only 57 percent were successful; many of the remaining 43 percent were discharged for disciplinary incidents. The US Post Office released a study in January which reported that drug users were absent from work at a 43 percent higher rate than nonusers, and were fired 40 percent more frequently.

The message is clear. Substance abuse, and I include alcohol in that category, is costing more than we can afford to pay, in terms of our economic competitiveness, our values, and productive lives.

We need to use the tools available, in concert with firm, comprehensive, and compassionate policies. Winning the war is essentially a leadership issue. We have the means; all we have to do is decide to use them. One of the most effective - and democratic - keys is random drug testing.

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