Street Junkies are the Real Enemy

By Dave Kopel

Colorado Statesman. May 18, 1990

The premise of democracy is that given accurate information, the people and their representatives will make the right decision most of the time. Unfortunately, many Coloradans, and perhaps some legislators, have been duped by drug war hysterics who are engaged in a deliberate campaign of fraud based on phony statistics.  There is no reason to believe that any Coloradans, on any side of the drug issue, are trying to deceive. The deceptions come not from Colorado, but rather from out-of-staters who, for reasons of their own, are spreading disinformation about the drug problem.

Everyone has heard the "statistic" that employees who use drugs, even occasionally, are one-third less productive than non-users. Dr. John Morgan, of the City University of New York Medical School stalked the source of the "fact", and traced it to a two-page interview with a Firestone Tire & Rubber manager. The manager said that dysfunctional alcoholics are less productive; he never mentioned drugs.

Drug users cause "60 billion dollars a year in losses to the business community" claim advocates of widespread drug testing.  That figure is simply fallacious, counters Robert L. Hubbard, program director for alcoholism and drug abuse for the Research Triangle Institute in North Carolina. Hubbard ought to know, since his company, RTI, did the study on which the "60 billion" figure is based.

The Research Triangle Institute compared the incomes of people who are or had been heavy marijuana smokers with the incomes of non-users of the equivalent education level, and found that the smokers had 28% lower incomes. Hubbard chastises misguided drug warriors who claim that every penny of the lower income of the smokers is a "business loss."

Further, RTI study didn't even prove that heavy marijuana use causes lower incomes. For example, an Afro-American Priest in Watts who had smoked marijuana in college might have his income compared with a white Exxon executive in Beverly Hills who never used illegal drugs. Since RTI didn't control for race, family structure, or other variables, even its limited conclusions are of uncertain value.

Nevertheless, drug war extremists misuse the RTI study, by claiming the lower income of the Priest as a "drug-related business loss."  Yet even labeling that lower income a "business loss," only yields a figure of 33 billion dollars. The other 27 billion of the "60 billion business loss" came from estimates of expenses that are not business related -- such as the cost of replacing a car stereo when a crackhead steals it.

When the Southern Pacific Railroad instituted a drug testing program, its accident rate fell 72%, as Rep. Grant pointed out in an op-ed in these pages. Happily, the statistic is actually true. But what Southern Pacific's publicists fail to emphasize is that at the same time drug testing began, the railroad also instituted a comprehensive overhaul of every aspect of its safety system. The new emphasis on safety, rather than the new emphasis on collecting private body fluids, probably explains most if not all of Southern Pacific's safety gains.

Drug war zealots realize that unless they can "prove" that off-the-job drug use devastates business, there is no justification for widespread drug testing. By normal American values, companies have no right to inquire into their workers' off-the-job lives. A company couldn't randomly inspect its employees' bank accounts to make sure they weren't writing bad checks.  Likewise, the prosecution of the criminal laws is something that is done by the government, not by big business.

Yet whenever there is a window of opportunity for the Fortune 500 to expand its role in supervising our lives, many businesses seize the opportunity. It's simply the natural human instinct to want more power. Regulatory agencies search for new fields to regulate; businesses look for new ways to control their employees. Perhaps that is why many companies institute drug testing program -- even when there is no evidence that the companies have a drug problem. (Indeed, a recent survey of California and Arizona retailers found that only 2% consider employee substance abuse their most serious employee problem.)

While phony statistics "justify" new levels of intrusion. real studies which show the opposite conclusion are suppressed. For instance, the Post Office in Boston knowingly hired a group of people who had drug-tested positive. The purpose was evidently to track these people, study their expected inferior job performance, and use the study to validate drug testing.

The federal government collected and analyzed the data, but has refused to write a report, and has refused to release the data to the public. Perhaps the evidence doesn't show what it was supposed to?

Other arms of the federal government do have more integrity. The National Institute for Drug Abuse (NIDA) has published studies showing that pre-employment drug tests have little predictive value of employee quality. Steven Gust, research director for the office of workplace initiatives at NIDA says he knows of only study showing a statistically significant link between drugs and work performance. That study showed that males in their 20s who smoked marijuana heavily changed jobs more often than those who did not smoke heavily.

The authorization of company monitoring of away-from-work behavior by employees represents a major loss of a right that was secured almost half a century ago.  In the early 1940s, labor courts ruled that employers had no right to monitor their employees off the job, even when the employees engaged in serious criminal conduct.  The authorization of drug testing sets back employee freedom nearly half a century.

Even greater than the need for phony employee productivity statistics has been the need for phony drug test reliability statistics. The potential inaccuracies of drug testing have been documented by the Journal of the American Medical Association, and by the Centers for Disease Control. Given the clear evidence that drug tests are unreliable, and produce too many false positives, the drug test industry needed counter-evidence.

The American Association of Clinical Chemistry stepped into the breach. The ACCA conducted two studies of selected drug-test labs. The first study found an accuracy rate of 99.3%.  The second study submitted over 1,400 samples for testing, and no false positives resulted. Impressive results.

But the ACCA study was done with artificial synthetic urine samples that did not contain chemicals known to cause false positives.  The labs which tested the ACCA samples didn't have to contend with urine that contained Ibuprofen, nasal decongestants, poppy seeds, or any of the other 1001 chemicals that cause false positives. Dr. Arthur McVay, Chief Toxicologist for the state of North Carolina for 20 years, and now a Professor Emeritus of Pharmacology and of Pathology at the University of North Carolina, calls the ACCA studies worthless.

Even if the ACCA were accurate, it would merely confirm the case against drug testing. Let's hypothesize that tests really are 99.3% reliable, and that overworked lab technicians and minimum wage "site collection monitors" never introduce human error into the tests.

A company has 10,000 workers whom it wishes to test for cocaine. One percent of the workers have used cocaine recently. (The one percent figure overstates the actual rate of use by people with full-time jobs.) The 99.3% accurate test will identify 99 of the company's 100 cocaine users. The same test, .7% inaccurate, will misidentify 69 of the 9,900 non-users as users.  Thus, to find 99 guilty people, the company has leveled false accusations at 69 innocent people.

Some of those unlucky 69 may be able to get a note from a physician proving what caused the false positives. (If their false positive was caused by prescription drugs, rather than bagels, or natural skin pigments like melanin.) But every person who failed the test, even if later exculpated, will remain under a permanent cloud of suspicion -- just as an arrest makes page one of the news, and an acquittal makes page forty-five.

The manufacturers of fake statistics apparently believe that unless the public is frightened with misinformation, the public will reject massive drug testing. The manufacturers may be right.

The more that extremists and hysterics panic legislators and businesses into invading the privacy of respectable citizens, the less energy is spent on the attack on the real problem -- like the never-worked-a-day-in-their-lives street junkies and the pushers who sell to children. They're the real enemy in the drug war. The working people of America are not.

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