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The GOP’s Drug-Testing Dragnet

The annual Drug & Alcohol Testing Industry Association (DATIA) conference, held in 2012 in San Antonio, Texas, looks like any other industry gathering. The 600 or so attendees sip their complimentary Starbucks coffee, munch on small plates of muffins and fresh fruit, and backslap old acquaintances as they file into a sprawling Marriott hotel conference hall. They will hear a keynote address by Robert DuPont, who served as drug policy director under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. Nothing odd about any of this until you consider that the main subject of the conference is urine.

oppressive drug tests laws war urineSeventy-seven years old, DuPont adopts the air of a sprightly televangelist as he outlines what he calls “the new battle lines” in the war on drugs, one that “begins with kids.” At the climax of his speech, DuPont offers “the new paradigm” of drug treatment: a program that one controversial Hawaiian judge administers to all drug-addicted probationers he oversees. “If they test positive,” he says, his voice slowly rising into a high-pitched yell, “they go to jail that day! No discussion!… No discretion! To jail that day!”

As DuPont finishes his speech, the hundreds of drug-testing company representatives in the audience rise to give him a standing ovation.

DuPont is in an expansive mood following his speech. Since the 1980s, he has been in the business of selling drug-testing services to employers. As far as he’s concerned, drug tests should be given to “anybody who receives a benefit,” from unemployment insurance to welfare. “Test ‘em all!” he exclaims.

This may sound overzealous, but Republican lawmakers around the country are already enthusiastically embracing the idea of making clean urine a condition of receiving public benefits. Since 2011, seven states have passed laws mandating drug tests for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) applicants and recipients, and in 2012 at least twenty-five other states considered proposals to tie welfare cash assistance, and in some cases also food stamps, to drug tests. In February 2012, Congress passed a law paving the way for states to urine-test the recipients of unemployment benefits seeking work in sectors where such screenings are required. Since then, sixteen states have considered laws tying unemployment insurance benefits to drug tests.

The thirst for urine can be traced to the military’s 1971 Operation Golden Flow, aimed at detecting druggies among Vietnam veterans. Launched in response to rumors of heroin addiction, the test disproportionately netted marijuana users, since one byproduct of marijuana, carboxy-THC, lingers in the body longer than that of harder drugs. (In contrast, the body flushes out the byproducts of harder drugs, such as cocaine and heroin, within a day.) Nevertheless, before long, all service members were required to urinate in a cup at least once every two years.

Then there was the executive order issued by Ronald Reagan in 1986, which warned that “the use of illegal drugs, on or off duty, by federal employees in certain positions…may pose a serious risk to national security.” The order mandated that all federal agencies implement drug-testing programs to “show the way towards achieving drug-free workplaces.” Two years later, Reagan went one step further, signing the Drug Free Workplace Act, which mandated urine tests for every employee working for a federal grantee and even those working for some contractors.

At first, the medical profession dismissed urine testing as “chemical McCarthyism”—and ineffective to boot, since a worker using cocaine several times a week was more likely to pass a drug test than a colleague who’d smoked a joint at a party the previous Saturday night. Meanwhile, most tests ignored alcohol, which is the drug most often blamed for workplace accidents.

By Isabel Macdonald
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