Drug testing: no cure-all

ONCE again the Reagan administration is beating the drum for wide-scale testing for the use of illegal drugs. The Justice Department, under Attorney General Edwin Meese, has prepared draft legislation and an executive order to permit drug testing of more than half of all civilian federal workers -- over a million of them. A testing program would ultimately cover ``any employee in or applicant to a sensitive position.''

Once again, this is not the way to go.

At a time when popular concern over drug abuse is running high, for reasons both sound and less than sound, the appeal of drug testing is understandable. The testing authority -- be it a corporate employer, a school system, the federal government -- is seen to be in control, doing something about the problem. And certainly the President is to be commended for his moves to exercise moral leadership on the drug issue.

But the desire to be seen to be doing something about a problem should not be allowed to eclipse rights to privacy and of presumption of innocence, or of freedom from medical intrusion.

The manufacturers of testing equipment, meanwhile, are presumably doing their best to impress Washington officials with the urgency of the country's need for their products. They should not be allowed to have the last word. Moreover, a military-authoritarian mind-set can at times surface in government and other institutions -- a tendency to be watched.

The general furor over drugs needs to be considered in the light of the fact that this is an election year, one without any truly burning issues. Of course, candidates of both parties are vying to appear tougher and more effective on drug law enforcement than their opponents.

This is not to make light of the devastating effects of drug abuse on many lives. Indeed, progress in overcoming drugs will probably not begin in earnest until the public has calmed down a bit.

What is needed most is a broader and more reasoned approach on drugs than is promised by steps toward universal drug testing.

The desire for a drug-free federal workplace is commendable. But as we work toward one, we must consider whether the interests of the drug-testing industry necessarily coincide with those of society as a whole. In the government sector, as in the private sector, drug tests are no substitute for alert, sensitive management, and trust between employees and employers.

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