Institute for Ethics & Policy Studies
Why take on a topic that may very well make one an employment pariah?
In the interest of full disclosure:
It was my job to develop, install, and maintain custom, procedure-specific software for use by the technicians in calculating radionuclide concentrations and dose exposures. I also worked on statistical quality control applications, applied research toward development of analytical correction factors, and helped write and subsequently administer our Software Quality Assurance procedure. While at this complex I worked amid much of the very same analytical technology (e.g., High Performance Liquid Chromatography, Gas Chromatography/Mass Spectrometry) also employed by drug testing labs, as much of our specimen workload consisted of urine samples suspected of contamination. I also learned just how difficult it can be to substantiate analytical results. We underwent frequent adversarial lab audits that would be the envy of a Spanish Inquisitor. I have been audited right down to my rounding algorithms.
During this period a couple of emotionally charged episodes involving suspicionless drug testing hit the news in East Tennessee. First, the local school board sought to enact a mandatory drug test policy aimed at teachers. When the teachers’ union protested and sued to enjoin the policy, Board Superintendent Earl Hoffmeister went ballistic in the press, accusing the teachers of “hiding behind the Constitution” in order to cover up drug abuse among their members.
There was no evidence of drug abuse among Knox County teachers.
Also during this period, Knoxville Police Chief Phil Keith made an incredible statement during an on-the-record interview with the local paper. He opined that he should have the power to order anyone “to go take a drug test right now; don’t ask me any questions, just go do it.” He had been fighting with his police officers over a proposed random drug testing policy for the department, a policy the rank-and-file vigorously opposed.
These highly visible controversies made for interesting lunchroom conversation at our lab. Our chemists derided the notion that commercial clinical labs could do high-quality work on the cheap in mass production mode. The CEO of a large local clinical lab that performed the bulk of the drug testing in East Tennessee, had stated to the press that his lab’s technology was “absolute; if we do everything correctly there is no possibility of error” (Knoxville Journal, 12/13/90, emphasis mine).
A very big if. This comment brought forth torrents of rebuke in our facility. The manager of our mixed waste lab, a bright and experienced chemist himself, remarked: “I’m exempt from that sh--; I’d have to think long and hard before going to work for a company that wanted to make me take a drug test.”
The local teachers’ union President was a member of my church. We talked about the dispute with the school board at length, and I provided him with extensive technical lab information to use in his fight against the policy. The teachers ultimately won a permanent federal court injunction against the board, and the whole idea was dropped and faded from public view.
By this time, though, the issue had gotten my continuing attention, and I followed the progress of similar disputes around the country. Suspicionless drug testing programs expanded rapidly in the late 1980’s in the wake of President Reagan’s Executive Order 12564 (Drug-free Federal Workforce) and the federal Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1998. At every turn, those who objected to forced testing were subjected to withering ad hominem attacks. Dissent was equated with “support for drug abuse” or the dissenters’ need to hide their imputed drug use and legalization agenda. Indeed, several years ago former “Drug Czar” Lee Brown, publicly rebuking then-Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders for her musings on the utility of scientific study of drug legalization issues, flatly declared that “[T]here will be no discussion on drug legalization; even the discussion is harmful.”
In 1992 the issue became far more than an ethical abstraction to me. My wife was transferred to Las Vegas by her employer—the very same corporation I had also worked for in Oak Ridge, where she was a senior Quality Assurance manager in another division—to oversee the QA program of their new environmental restoration contract based in Nevada. The operations manager in her new office had learned of my background and prior contract work for the company and offered me a “part-time temporary” job. He was trying to help us out with our resettlement while getting some of his short-term service needs filled as painlessly as possible by end-running—through the “temp” process—the H.R. Department proscription against spouses working in the same office.
After we’d agreed on money and scope of work, a secretary came in and put a consent form in front of me authorizing a pre-employment drug screen. Oh...Uh...
The moment of truth had arrived. Would the exigiency of trying to find work while negotiating a new mortgage in a new town on one income override ostensibly deeply held ethical principle? Even though I knew they’d find nothing in my urine beyond what I jokingly described as “a large spike in the GC/MSYuban Auto-Drip region” (along with some occasional Mouton Cadet Bourdeaux metabolites), I found the whole episode one of lose-lose irony and idiocy. Unlike many a prospective hire, I was utterly familiar to this company; I had once been cited with a corporate quarterly quality award (even though technically I was not at the time an “employee”) and had been twice thanked by the company with cash awards and handsome engraved plaques extolling my contributions to technical knowledge for papers I’d written and presented on their behalf while in Oak Ridge. Their St. Louis laboratory was still using software I had written while in Oak Ridge and had modified for use in the St. Louis operation. I had produced and directed a 4-hour radiation fundamentals and safety video training series for the Air Force Radiobiology Research Institute at Bethesda (AFRRI) under a Health Physics Group contract awarded the company. My documented record and portfolio screamed out “this man cannot possibly have had the time to be a drug abuser.” Indeed, during the period coincident with my tenure with the firm I frequently worked from six in the morning to eleven p.m. or midnight, six to seven days a week at times, either at the lab or in my struggling academic audio-video production studio sideline business. My drug of choice and necessity was in fact ( and remains) Yuban Auto-Drip.
No matter; spouse-hire policies are artfully malleable, drug screening policies are not. The Ops manager was sympathetic to my position on the issue, but insisted that his hands were tied. In fact they were not—I had a copy of the section of the company’s Human Resources policy that addressed pre-employment drug testing; it had the usual weasel phrases giving the firm the option to eschew drug screening (e.g., say, in the case of having headhunted an extremely sought-after senior scientist or executive who might take offense at the requirement to be tested and hire on elsewhere). However, he was unwilling to risk his neck by contravening the policy for a “part-time temp.”
I chose not to rub his nose in this document. The well had been irremediably poisoned, and discretion dictated that I not take any action that might have internal repercussions rebounding on my wife. Lose-lose.
Rather ironically, during the entire 5+ years I had served this company I never had had to submit to drug testing because of my status as a “contractor,” (to the aggravated envy of my “employee” colleagues) despite the facts that I had my own keys to the buildings, supervisory status on the Novell network, full access to all manner of confidential internal operations data, and served a mission-critical role at the lab.
As Bob Dole says: Whatever.
No Sale. Just move on. We got our house; I got a job with the Medicare Peer Review, and joined the excellent graduate program at the UNLV Institute for Ethics and Policy Studies, where I am now completing my degree work.
An interesting aside: Prior to signing on with the Peer Review, I answered a REECO newspaper ad soliciting a computer analyst—one which meshed with my recent data-processing background. Reynolds Electrical Engineering Corporation (REECO) was then a long-time prime contractor for the Department of Energy at the Nevada Test Site. After I finished filling out the job application, I read the fine print statement Iwould have to sign, one authorizing a background investigation. It essentially said: “REECO is hereby authorized to obtain personal information regarding the applicant from any source whatever, whether material or not and whether documented or not, and applicant hereby indemnifies REECO against any and all liability regarding any subsequent breach of confidentiality with respect to any information obtained in the course of said investigation.” I paraphrase here, for when I objected and declined, they refused to allow me to take the document with me.
Again, No Sale. An overwrought concern? Perhaps. But, at some point, someone has to just say no to these things.
Las Vegas is the surveillance capital of the known universe, and drug testing in the casino industry is a given. The leading clinical lab here runs frequent large newspaper ads extolling the virtues of its drug screening operation. One ad repeatedly and breathlessly claimed: If you’re not pre-employment drug testing, you’re hiring the rejects of those companies that do! No matter that credible evidence supporting such a blanket assertion is nowhere to be found.
Ironies go unnoticed: Caesar’s Palace touts its highly visible RIAH® hair drug test policy while its huge billboard out front promotes the most recent return engagement of the “Doobie Brothers.”
Of course the fans flocking to the performances nearly all recall what the 60’s slang term “doobie” refers to, and, although I’ve not been to one of their shows at Caesar’s, I’ll bet there are usually periodic wafts of a certain pungent smell in the air.
More ironies accrue as one surveys the general social, political, and legal climates pertaining to intoxication. As Walter K. Olson has pointed out, current operative interpretations of ADA, the Americans with Disabilities Act, define “addiction” as a protected disability with respect to employment discrimination (see Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of a Good Beer in The Washington Monthly, Sept. 1997, or an online excerpt from his book The Excuse Factory). Moreover, while “addicts” of the illicit drug variety must submit to “treatment” and abstain from their habits to be protected under ADA, “alcoholics” are afforded blanket protection. If you allow yourself to be officially defined as an alcoholic, you cannot be fired for “falling off the wagon” even if your continuing or episodic indulgence interferes with your ability to function at work. That this is so is testament to the ubiquity of alcohol in our culture and economy, a “drug” that lubricates our leisure and funds our publications and our entertainments (and our politicians) to an extent unrivaled by all but the now-besieged tobacco. Propositions to legislatively remediate the epidemiologic trauma attributable to alcohol and tobacco are invariably met with derisive clucking by liberal and conservative political apologists alike admonishing us to “heed the lessons of our failed prohibition experiment.” This while they never pass up an opportunity to muck up the “drug abuse” data with alcohol and tobacco statistics, as we have seen. And this while it is concomitantly thought an ethical and efficacious policy proposal that we return violent predators back to the streets early to free up cell space to send the hapless marijuana “mule” to prison for life without parole. (Or, as Mr. Gingrich would prefer, to adminster the lethal injection.)
The political rhetoric concerning suspicionless drug testing has heated up dramatically in the past few years, as I have alluded to elsewhere on these pages. I am dismayed and offended by the torrent of abuse heaped upon those who oppose any aspect of our mindless “War on Drugs.” My father taught me to revere the founding principles of this nation. For him, such were no mere civic homilies; now in his 80’s, he suffers to this day from the acute lifelong residual effects of the leg he left behind on a European World War II battlefield more than fifty years ago.
Mine was a young childhood lived down the street from George Washington’s Revolutionary War headquarters in Morristown, New Jersey. Mine was an education replete with class trips to our principal founding sites in New York and Philadelphia. Mine was a boyhood fascination with the works of Jefferson and Madison and their colleagues. Mine was a youth when the Fourth of July and Veterans’ Day stood for more than an excuse for the latest Dollar-Daze marketing blitz.
Mine is a patriotism having no need of cheap legislative whips and chains that sully the dignity of our Constitution.
Mine is now also a sad admiration for the likes of a Kathy Sohar. ABCWorld News reported on March 8th, 1997 that Ms. Sohar, an accomplished senior employee of Global Access Communications of Boston, was summarily fired by the company’s new corporate owner, Vyvx, Inc., for refusing on privacy principle to submit to a hair test—this after she had already taken and passed a urine drug screen.
Lose-lose stupidity. Ms. Sohar, you are to be congratulated for standing on principle. I think I know exactly how you must feel.
John Gilliom, an author cited in the course of this inquiry, views the widespread use of drug testing as merely one of the high-tech panoptic means of ensuring, as he puts it “the automatic functioning of power,” and the ideal employee/citizen is the one who passively submits to policy, regardless of its utility or propriety. For Gilliom, the putative drug screening policy rationales proffered (e.g., health, safety, and productivity) are just so much transparent window-dressing. The real goal is one of behavioral homogeneity, one of reflexively deferential attitudes toward authority, however arbitrary (and illegitimate) that authority might be.
I have to agree with Gilliom.But, I do not think that this is what Messrs. Jefferson and Madison and their colleagues had in mind as they forged this nation, and we ought take more serious pause before tampering with the elegant moral and legal architecture they bequeathed us.
This inquiry began with a quotation from the autobiography of the late, venerable Eric Sevareid. I close it with an equally fitting one excerpted from the monthly journal column of Lewis Lapham.
wine in old bottles
...Although I have often heard it said that the truth shall make men free, I’m never sure that everybody in the room attaches the same meaning to the phrase. The truth isn’t about the assimilation of doctrine or statistics, not even about the discovery of termites in the wainscotting of the White House. It’s about acquiring the courage of one’s own thought, and if it’s impossible to have courage without convictions, it’s equally impossible to have convictions without knowledge and understanding. The task is never an easy one, especially in a society that encourages its citizens to wander through their lives in a passive stupor. I’m told that as a nation we spend $350 billion a year on liquor, pornography, and drugs, and the cold war against the American Intellect constitutes a more profitable business than the old arrangement with the Soviet Union.
The newspapers meanwhile worry about the extinction of what the editorial pages sometimes call “the educated citizen”—i.e., yet another endangered species, like the tawny ferret and the giant auk. But to the best of my knowledge I have never met such a person. Even the idea of an educated citizen strikes me as preposterous. I can conceive of a “self-educating citizen,” and have had the good fortune to meet a number of them who can be so described, none fool enough to proclaim themselves educated. Without exception they possess the valor of their ignorance, conceiving it neither as a blessed state of being (comparable to attendance at one of President Clinton’s Renaissance weekends) nor as a material good sold in a store (even at Harvard’s rate of $30,000 per annum) but as a ceaseless process of learning and relearning. If in sixteen years they have spent 10,000 hours in a classrom (roughly the equivalent of fourteen months), they expect to spend another fifty years revising what they thought they had learned in school.
I count among the major good fortunes of my life my time spent in recent years in the company of my fellow students and faculty mentors within the UNLV Institute for Ethics and Policy Studies, a wise, collegial, compassionate, and diligent lot engaged steadfastly in the rewarding work of Lapham’s “self-educating citizen.” I leave this institution with much gratitude, and I emerge much better equipped to continue the “ceaseless process of learning and relearning.”
- Robert E. Gladd, February 1998