NO one could reasonably argue for letting train engineers or bus drivers smoke pot if they choose. But it doesn't follow that random testing of all such workers, as proposed by United States Transportation Secretary James Burnley, is a reasonable response to the dangers of drug use. Constitutional questions are inescapable. The courts have generally held that examinations of body fluids for drug residues are ``searches'' within the definition of the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. Random drug tests based on the assumption that at least some people in any pool of employees are likely to be users flies in the face of the ``probable cause'' standard.
Cases now before the US Supreme Court will address some of these concerns.
It is important that work environments discourage drug use, but there must be ways to do that - through education and close monitoring of performance - without inviting intrusions on privacy.
How much of an intrusion is drug testing? Consider that experts in the field admit that the only way to ensure that the sampling process is done honestly is to observe it directly. And that the person running the tests has to inquire about an individual's medical history to be sure the drugs detected are not simply some common medicines that will also test positive. And that the sample provided can also be used to test for pregnancy and other bodily conditions that may be of interest to employers, who administer and pay for the tests under Mr. Burnley's plan. Moreover, drug tests aren't always accurate.
When it comes to what the tests reveal, another set of questions arises. Test results say nothing about the extent or pattern of use, or the degree to which that use impairs the employee's ability to function.
Employers may, therefore, get information of more interest to the police than to themselves. Do employers want to be drug enforcement agents?
Legal and ethical questions aside, we can't help wondering about the transportation secretary's judgment in leaping into this arena right now.
Congress has wrestled with the issue for nearly two years. The Senate passed a measure similar to Burnley's, but it couldn't get through the House. Constitutional concerns and practical problems about how the government could enforce the regulations among independent truckers - who are self-employed - were beyond congressional ability to resolve. The General Accounting Office was hard put to give firm estimates for what enforcement of the proposed law would cost local governments that oversee school bus drivers, garbage collectors, and others.
The transportation secretary seems to have buzzed right through these obstacles in a kind of regulatory blitz. The airline pilots and other unions are attempting to slow things down a bit with legal challenges to the regulations.
We're in favor of every reasonable, well-thought-out effort to get at the country's drug problem. We doubt Burnley's initiative fits this description.