The Corporate Response to Drugs

HEADLINES don't always suggest it, but the nation has been making progress in its war on drugs. Fewer Americans are using illicit drugs. And those who do are more likely to be caught and pay a price. The encouraging news was found in the 1988 Household Survey on Drug Abuse, conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. It said that between 1985 and 1988, the number of casual marijuana users dropped by a third, from 18 million to 12 million, while the number of current cocaine users declined by half, from 5.8 million to 2.9 million. Yet even as the population of drug users has declined, penalties for engaging in drug activities have been increasing. Our prisons are filled to overflowing with those who have dealt drugs or committed a crime while under their influence.

Perhaps more important, thousands of Americans are learning daily that drug use doesn't pay. In lessons that don't show up on criminal-court dockets, users are finding themselves out of luck in the job market.

Powerful market forces have been unleashed against the drug menace and, like antidrug education and tougher law enforcement, they seem to be helping.

At my company, Waste Management, you can't get a job as a senior executive, engineer, or file clerk if you test positive for drugs. This year we'll test nearly 10,000 prospective employees for drug use - and we'll reject nearly 700 otherwise good candidates because they abuse drugs.

The cost of illicit drug use to these individuals is staggering. The 700 people we'll refuse to hire this year, collectively, will lose $20 million in first-year compensation, not including benefits.

In 1982, only 5 percent of the Fortune 500 companies had drug-testing policies. Today, half do. And most are squarely focused on new hires. Two-fifths of the manufacturing jobs in this country are off-limits to those who test positive for drugs.

This is not to suggest the drug problem is going away. Drugs remain a serious problem. And while fewer Americans may be abusing them, those who do have raised the cost to our society by using more dangerous, addictive, and damaging drugs like cocaine, crack, and methampethamine. While the Household Survey found cocaine use overall was down by half, the number of frequent cocaine users (at least once a week) rose by nearly 20 percent from 1985 to 1988.

A troubling aspect of our pre-employment screening has been the stubbornness of the cocaine rate. Each of the past two years, 3 percent of applicants have tested positive for cocaine, while marijuana has declined. Yet marijuana can be detected weeks after use; cocaine only within 48 hours. These people can't say ``no'' to cocaine for two days, even with a job on the line!

Corporate America's response to the drug crisis was born of necessity. To this point, it largely has been limited to actions at or inside the plant gate. But to be successful, we must heed President Bush's call for meaningful new contributions. Our stake is great. By government estimates, drug-related productivity losses alone amount to $33 billion a year. And that's not the half of it. Substance abusers are more likely to be sick, have accidents, and miss work. They raise the cost of health benefits, liability insurance, and worker's compensation.

We believe corporations can help themselves and the country by giving more resources to the battle earlier. We can provide funds and, in many cases, materials for stronger drug-education and awareness programs for schools and parents. Our children must learn that drug abuse is not only morally and socially unacceptable, but economically unacceptable as well.

At Waste Management, we recently asked the Gallup Organization to conduct a national survey of parents and children to assess the quality, quantity, and effectiveness of parent-child dialogue on drugs. We learned that while most parents are talking to their children about drugs, 70 percent feel ill-equipped to handle the job. We also learned that drug education is beginning earlier at home. And that's good.

But there was one troubling finding: At ages 10 and 11, when children are most receptive to their parents' opinions and counsel, many say their parents don't have time to talk to them about drugs. These are the final days of innocence - the years before most youngsters will have friends who try drugs. There is a short distance between age 11 and a first job. So we have a stake even at this early age.

In cooperation with the Robert Crown Center for Health Education in Hinsdale, Ill., we have developed a video titled ``Time to Think,'' to serve as a catalyst for parental discussions about drugs with fifth- and sixth-graders and have arranged with Blockbuster Entertainment to make it available for free rental at 925 video stores nationwide.

These are modest steps. But they are evidence of what can and should be done to take corporate influence beyond the plant gate in the battle against drugs.

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