Last updated: June 3rd, 2016
There is a lot wrong with urine drug testing —
Privacy: Urine tests intrude on intimate bodily privacy. Mass drug screening violates the privacy of the majority of responsible employees in order to spot a minority of alleged drug abusers, many of whom are in fact not drug abusers at all. Government-imposed drug testing may be restricted by the 4th Amendment to the Constitution, which forbids unreasonable search and seizure and requires “probable cause” for search warrants. However, the 4th Amendment does not generally apply to tests by private employers.
Accuracy: No test is infallible. Surveys of drug testing labs have found remarkably high error rates from poor quality control. While good labs have added safeguards to minimize the risk of “false positives,” even if error rates are only one in 10,000, the extension of drug testing to tens of millions of workers as proposed by the government means that many workers will be falsely accused of drug abuse.
The most common misconception about drug urine testing is that it detects drug-impaired workers, whereas it actually detects evidence of past drug use that need have no relation to on-the-job performance. Because drug tests are highly sensitive to marijuana, random testing can promote use of other, more dangerous drugs such as cocaine and opiates, which wash out in 2-3 days, or LSD, which is rarely tested. At the same time, most drug tests totally disregard alcohol, the nation’s leading drug of abuse. Urine testing is thus an inherently flawed technology: it rules out the most innocent off-the-job marijuana use, while permitting flagrant on-the-job alcoholiism.
Efficacy: Urine testing has never been scientifically shown to be safe or effective at improving workplace safety or productivity, and studies indicate that the great majority of drug-positive workers are just as reliable as others (John Horgan, “Test Negative,” Scientific American, March 1990; Dr. John Morgan, “Impaired Statistics and the Unimpaired Worker,” The Drug Policy Letter, May/June 1989). Medically, the consensus of expert opinion is that drug tests are an inherently unreliable indicator of drug impairment (Consensus Report, National Institute on Drug Abuse, Journal of the American Medical Association, Nov. 8, 1985). Dr. George Lundberg of the American Medical Association has called them “Chemical McCarthyism” (editorial, Journal of the American Medical Association, Dec. 5 1986).
Alternatives: The shortcomings of drug testing can be avoided by performance tests that measure actual concentration and reaction time instead of chemical residues. Computer video game tests that detect impairment due to drugs, fatigue, stress, or illness are now available on the market (Performance Factors, Denver, Col.).
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