Photo by Maria Oswalt on Unsplash
In 1982, two New York advertising executives coined the hallmark phrase behind one of the most significant policy failures in the United States—”Just say no.” The three words became a go-to catchphrase for Nancy Regan, who touted it at schools and public speaking engagements across the country.
Mrs. Regan’s dedication to keeping kids off drugs was part of a larger campaign, pushed by President Ronald Regan and his administration. The campaign was the War on Drugs, a decades-long tirade targeting drug users, providers, and the substances themselves.
The result led to over 1.6 million new drug arrests each year, and the highest incarceration rate of any country. By the late 1980s, America’s War on Drugs infiltrated the public and private sectors alike. A new era of mandatory drug testing, stop-and-frisk searches, and arrests was born.
Today, workplace drug testing is a norm for workers throughout the United States. And yet, what now seems like an inevitable norm began a mere three decades ago, during the heart of America’s slash-and-burn approach to drug use.
Workplace drug testing lies at the heart of war-on-drugs policies. The testing began in 1986 after the President’s Commission on Organized Crime Report. And yet, rather than focus on harm reduction or supply-side solutions, the report recommended targeting drug consumers themselves.
According to the report, both public and private sector drug screening were viable tools to control drug use throughout the United States.
Shortly after the recommendation, President Regan issued Executive Order 12,564, which established mandatory drug screening for over 1.1 million federal employees, from high-level public officials to postal workers.
For the first time in American history, pre-employment drug screening was mandatory in the public sector. The private sector was quick to catch on. By 1987, estimates suggest that over one-fifth of large employers adopted workplace drug testing. By 1995, when drug testing reached the height of its popularity, that number jumped to over three-fourths.
Most of these drug tests were for pre-employment screening, not tests of impairment.
These numbers are staggering compared to America’s northern neighbor. In Canada, workplace drug testing is considered a human rights violation. Only 10 percent of Canadian employers drug test their employees, according to a 2006 survey.
Similarly, in Europe, few set guidelines for drug testing exist. Physicians and similar professionals may undergo testing for safety concerns, but drug testing is not as commonplace or as regulated as it is in the United States. Drug testing, it seems, is a uniquely American phenomenon.
Drug policy is changing slowly but surely in the US. With medical and adult-use cannabis legalization in many states, the number of employers that drug tests declined.
But, the problem is still far from solved.
According to a 2018 survey from Human Resource Management, 57 percent of employers still use workplace drug tests, whether that’s pre-screening or routine testing.
In some cases, workplace drug testing makes sense. Doctors, police officers, drivers, and people that use heavy machinery, an impairment may be a safety hazard. When employees in both the US and Canada take these jobs, they consent to drug testing as a safety protocol.
Only in the US, however, are non-safety related occupations like retail salesmen, librarians, and office workers subject to workplace drug screenings. Here’s why it’s a problem:
The most common drug test is a five-panel urinalysis. Better known as: the pee test.
Five-panel urine tests for the presence of five commonly abused drugs, including THC, cocaine, amphetamines, opiates, and PCP.
Here’s the thing—a urine test will not tell you whether or not an employee is currently intoxicated. Instead, a urine test can only tell you whether or not a consumer used a drug some time within the past three to 30 days, depending on the drug.
Testing positive for drug consumption in a urinalysis does not necessarily indicate that a person is impaired. Nor does it tell you whether or not an employee is unfit to work.
Long detection times make urine tests one of the worst ways to check for impairment. Each substance features its own detection window, which is the amount of time it takes before a drug is no longer detected by a drug test.
Some drugs, like amphetamines, feature a detection window of three to five days after last consumption. No drug, however, can be detected in your system as long as cannabis. THC can still be detected from 10 to 30 days after last your last consumption, depending on how much and how frequently you consume.
With such long detection windows, workplace urine tests are ultimately flawed.
Over the past three decades, the constitutionality of workplace drug testing for public sector employees has been challenged repeatedly. The biggest argument against workplace drug testing is that workplace drug testing violates the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unlawful search and seizure.
More commonly put, the Fourth Amendment is the right to privacy. The Amendment reads:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
To be clear, the Fourth Amendment doesn’t protect against all searches and seizures. Instead, to perform a lawful search and seizure, there needs to be “probable cause.” In order to search for anything on your person, a warrant or obvious violation is needed.
But, is probable cause evident for pre-employment or routine drug testing? These practices enable testing without any previous complaints.
It is important to note, however, that constitutionality is only in question with public sector jobs. If you work for a private employer, there is no limited protection for your constitutional rights. Instead, by taking a job from a private entity, you agree to the terms set by the employer.
Consumers faced with a workplace drug test often ask themselves the same question: how do you pass it?
An entire industry exists around workplace drug testing. Drug testing labs may be thriving, but so are businesses that help people pass. Detox supplements, synthetic urine, and other test-fooling paraphernalia are commonplace in the era of workplace drug testing.
With good reason, too.
When your livelihood is on the line, many people will go to great lengths to avoid being penalized for their weekend habits. Here are the most common ways consumers pass workplace drug tests:
Synthetic urine is exactly what it sounds like—fake pee. Synthetic urine is a solution concocted to mimic real human urine to fool laboratory tests. Brands like Clear Choice are pH balanced, balanced for specific gravity, and contain uric acid and creatinine, compounds tested for in the lab.
Many states have introduced policy to criminalize the use of synthetic urine during urinalysis. Despite the risk, synthetic urine remains one of the most popular ways to pass workplace drug tests. Unlike detox drinks, you don’t have to consume anything to use synthetic urine. Detoxing isn’t necessary when using this method.
Detox products are another drug testing trick. These products often contain a potent mix of vitamins, fiber, and herbal supplements, concocted to facilitate detoxification. In some cases, detox products, like Clear Choice Rescue Cleanse Detox Drinks, may also work by masking drug metabolites in urine.
Rescue Cleanse Detox Drinks come in two sizes—one for consumers under and over 200 pounds. Using these products in combination with water may assist in clearing or hiding residual drug metabolites within one hour after consumption, and the effects last up to five hours after drinking.
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