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Drug testing: balancing private rights with public safety

THE hair salon on a fashionable Boston street where Allison works as a stylist issues a written warning to its employees. Substantially, it reads: Anyone found using drugs on the job will be subject to immediate dismissal. Allison agrees with her boss's assumption that drugs could interfere with the carrying out of professional duties. Although she doesn't use illegal substances herself, the young woman says she might balk at taking a test to prove she is ``clean.''

Why the reluctance? If somebody doesn't take drugs, why would they not willingly submit to chemical analysis? Isn't it in the interest of public safety and security to weed out drug-takers from worker ranks?

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Many company managers and private-sector officials just don't understand why many workers object to drug testing. They point out that such usage is costing well over $30 billion a year in employee illnesses, absenteeism, poor workmanship, low productivity, and worker theft.

There is another side to the argument, however. It has to do with concern over invasion of privacy and the setting aside of other rights, such as the guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures. The view that arbitrary drug testing is unconstitutional is proferred by civil liberties advocates and workers unions and federations, among others.

The latter argue that drug testing, without probable cause, is improper. They also say that chemical tests are not infallible and can sometimes lead to false accusations resulting in dismissal, embarrassment, and shame for wronged workers.

What's the answer? On the one hand, employers have a right to a drug-free workplace. But on the other, employees also have a right to privacy and to freedom from unwarranted harassment. These clashing concepts seem to present society with a tough dilemma. Opt for one side, and personal liberties could be sacrificed. Choose the other, and the public welfare might be put at risk.

A practical and workable compromise -- including alternatives to drug testing -- is obviously what is needed. Some promising proposals emerged from a recent conference on drug testing sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

Among them: Limit initial testing to those in special situations, such as workers whose jobs involve a significant risk to other employees or to the public at large; test only where there is strong evidence of suspected abuse, such as obviously impaired job performance; be certain that the worker is aware that he or she is being tested specifically for drugs; confirm all positive results through use of alternate tests; keep findings confidential; stress drug rehabilitation as part of any testing program.

A NIDA task force particularly emphasized ``fairness'' in company policies and called for programs that help workers turn away from drugs, rather than stress punishment (probation or dismissal).

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Furthermore, this group has launched a public awareness campaign to ``deglamorize'' the use of cocaine and other addictive substances.

If the private sector pursues this kind of positive, solution-oriented course, the outlook for cooperative worker-management compromise on drug testing could be promising.

Government might do well to adopt a similar stance. Massive drug screening began in the military about five years ago. And some of those screened feel that the tests are unreliable and sometimes discriminatory.

Now, the President's Commission on Organized Crime is asking for mandatory, random drug testing for all federal workers, and even for those in private firms doing business with the government.

The National Federation of Federal Employees says that this type of drug testing without probable cause would be an invasion of constitutional rights. This group has filed suit to stop the commission's recommendation from being implemented. They also stress that federal drug testing would cost the taxpayers about $100 million a year.

A Thursday column

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