PARTING SHOT

The Yellow Peril: What price will we pay for a drug-free society?

Every so often a great foolishness sweeps over the land. The signs of its coming are usually the same: a vaguely defined but horrible menace is spotted; the media dissect its every angle and ramification; pulpiteers howl against it on Sundays; and finally, especially if an election is looming, politicians rush to get ahead of the mob and lead them somewhere, anywhere.

So it was in the McCarthy era. Communists-50 or 500 or 5 million of them, depending on who kept score-were swarming like maggots through Hollywood, the universities, the federal government, even the Pentagon. To question the existence or strength of this dark army marked one as a disloyal nitpicker or (who could be sure?) perhaps one of them. And if you’re not one, sir, surely you won’t mind coming before our committee and proving it.

So it is now with the Holy War on Drugs. Drugs are the Great Satan, the absolute worst thing since maybe World War II. Judging from the dollars already pledged to their eradication, drugs are far worse than AIDS, last year’s crisis; or the African famine, last summer’s crisis. Any and all means must be used to battle the demon. Execute pushers? Politicians who have opposed capital punishment for years are all for it. Spend billions to secure our borders? You betcha. Order urine tests for federal employees and occupants of federal housing? The least we can do. Applaud, as did Nancy Reagan, children who rat on their parents? Hey, some things are more important than family values.

Faced with something manifestly stupid and ill-conceived, an opinion-monger can either yell at it or laugh at it. But humor alone, 1 fear, won’t force this genie back into its bottle (sorry, the puns are breaking free). Gosh knows some of us have tried to lightenup on this issue. (Hey buddy, urine trouble. . .This may come as a jarring surprise…What a vial proposal. . -Had your test yet?It’s a whiz. . . Sorry, I gave at the office. ..Just climbing the corporate bladder.. .We’vehad a steady stream of complaints.)

Granted, there’s nothing at ail funny about a fifteen-year-old crack addict. If even one exists, much less the legions who haunt the news magazines, it’s a tragedy. Likewise with the lawyer or accountant-turned-coke-hound, now a stock figure in every drug morality play. But having deplored the waste of any life in slavery to drugs, we must still ask whether a “drug-free society” is something we want to purchase at any price.

What’s wrong with drug testing? Almost everything. It’s like the old jilted-lover joke (just one more, I promise): “She said there were just two things she didn’t like about me-my looks and my personality.” Drug testing is an affront to a free society in a number of ways. Let’s count a few.

It’s inaccurate. Even advocates of drug testing will admit that urinalysis is an imperfect science. If all federal workers were tested, the results would mean the firing of thousands of drug-free people who showed up as “false positives” and the retention of many others who actually use drugs but tested as “false negatives.” If you’re firing or refusing to hire someone because of the contents of a test tube, you’d better be right on the money.

It’s cowardly as practiced by many firms. Texas Instruments requires a urinalysis for new employees, as does EDS. which also tests workers in certain sensitive areas such as security and aviation. Spokesmen for both companies say they have no intention of requiring mandatory tests for their thousands of workers. Why not? Well, if you’ve got your Ernest Hemingway standard-issue crap detector ready, let’s think about it. First, the spokesmen are quick to say, their outfits don’t remotely resemble opium dens; neither company has experienced any marked increase in drug use. But almost 30 percent of Fortune 500 companies now use “pre-em-ployment” drug screening. Obviously, TI and EDS just want to be good team players. Fair enough. But why not test everyone? Why let a fifth column of potential dopers (everyone’s a suspect in the drug war) slide by under a grandfather clause? The answer, of course, starts with M and spells money and morale. Herd hundreds of loyal employees, many with five- and ten-year pins, into the bathroom to fill the cups, and you’ll hear plenty of griping. And you’ll pay for those cups of urine, perhaps up to $100 a splash for the definitive test that can survive a court challenge-and we’ll see scads of those. Oh, and don’t forget the Urine Patrol, those watchdogs who will have to be present (how will they put it?) “at the time the sample is procured to ensure the authenticity of its origins” or some other euphemism. Otherwise, some sly dog might substitute pure Baptist urine for the drug-laden stuff and that would mess up the “chain of custody.” (Love the way we talk in this free country.) I won’t speculate on rumors of a black market in Baptist urine, so let’s get back to the point: picking on just the new hires is cowardly and allows management a cheapo seat on the anti-drug bandwagon. If rampant drug use is bad because it cuts down productivity, or bad because drugs are immoral, or bad because Reagan says so, then test everybody. Repeatedly. At random intervals. If we think there is a drug problem among, say, airline pilots, then test them before every flight, not once or twice a year. Of course all these tests will cost money, but the costs will gladly be borne by consumers. We are all soldiers in the War on Drugs.

It’s hypocritical. Alcohol is still the undefeated heavyweight champion of American drugs. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism says that at least 100,000 lives, $116.7 billion dollars, and countless work-hours are lost yearly to alcohol-related problems. Beside these costs, the whole crack-pot-coke menace pales to nothing. But we have yet to hear from some gutsy senator who favors another try at Prohibition and wants to close our borders to the Corona peddlers. And where’s the CEO who wants to ban the office party and start daily testing for alcohol? If the guy fixing your brakes is still sloshing with gin from the night before, is he any more unsafe than the fellow who took a few hits of marijuana?

It tramples on civil liberties. You knew this was coming. Back in civics class, there was something about a presumption of innocence until proven guilty, remember? When you’re told to march in and fill the cup, you’re being presumed guilty and forced to prove you’re not. There’s the Fifth Amendment, with its talk about not being forced to witness against oneself.. And while we’re at it, many Americans are fond of that quaint old Fourth Amendment, which, last I checked, protected the people’s right to be secure in their “persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” I’m not sure whether one’s urine is an “effect” or not, but it’s unreasonable by definition to demand urine tests of people based on what we might call guilt by statistic. We know that a certain number of Americans use drugs; therefore we suspect you have used drugs and force you to prove you haven’t. This freedom is great stuff. Now if we just knew how many people shoplift each year, we’d know how many homes to search, sans warrants, for stolen goods.

It contributes to political nonsense. Tom Carter, Republican candidate for John Bryant’s U.S. House seat, recently announced that he and his staff were going to take urine tests to “set an example.” He challenged Bryant and his crew to do the same. Again, as with TI and EDS, nobody had ever accused Bryant of using drugs. But, lacking any solid issues. Carter hoped to ride in on the anti-dope Zeitgeist. I called Carter headquarters two weeks after the challenge and was assured that the candidate and his aides had yielded nothing but DEA-approved urine in an Irving clinic, under scrutiny of eyewitnesses. I then called Bryant’s camp, half-expecting to hear some mild horselaughs about the piss-off, which I assumed the congressman would dismiss as the absurd publicity stunt that it was.

But no: Bryant’s campaign manager was furious, not because of the urine challenge- a modern loyalty oath-but because, in his view, the Carter people had fudged on the process. Carter. I was told, announced the challenge on the Monday following the Rea-gans’ Sunday speech declaring war on drugs. But the Carter people had waited until the following Thursday to fill the cups. Didn’t I know that most drugs left the body during a three-day hiatus? The implication was clear: Carter’s drug tests were at least highly suspect, perhaps invalid.

Besides, Rep. Bryant had beaten his opponent to the draw. On the very day after the Reagans’ speech, he had gone to a Washington physician, given a sample, and been pro-nounced drug-free before the War on Drugs was a day old.

I don’t know what I’ll tell my grandchildren when they ask about the War on Drugs.We’ve already seen some bloody skirmishes.But I’m not sure they’ll believe all this. Itmay not stand the… test of time.

Newsletter

Keep me up to date on the latest happenings and all that D Magazine has to offer.

Comments