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This Article Was Originally Published in the Respected Scientific Journal "New Scientist" Date noted below:

Magazine section: Forum

Forum: Just say no to the War on Drugs - Norman Bauman passes his urine test

New Scientist vol 141 issue 1907 - 08 January 94, page 43

So, finally, I'm into the big money. A friend at a pharmaceuticals company offered me an editing job. But he added that I'd have to take a drugs test.

Workplace drugs testing is a $600 million business in the US. Some testing is required by regulations brought in during the Reagan era, but many large companies have started testing off their own bat 'to reduce accidents, and cut healthcare costs'. Now anyone applying to a major American pharmaceuticals, chem-icals or engineering firm is likely to be handed a urine specimen bottle with an application form.

In 1986, President Ronald Reagan decided to test government workers for drugs. Not surprisingly, since he had himself promoted Chesterfields cigarettes in earlier days, he excluded nicotine. He also excluded alcohol, although the US Department of Transportation requires alcohol and drugs tests for workers in 'safety-sensitive' jobs, for example truck drivers, airline pilots and oil tanker captains.

Most drugs testing is meant to determine the presence of marijuana; claims for the percentage of people failing the test range from 40 to 90 per cent, and do so because they have consumed this drug. Ironically, the tests are most sensitive to this, the least dangerous 'recreational' drug. Merck Manual states 'there is still little evidence of biological damage, even among relatively heavy users', although cannabis interferes with driving and working.

Because the drug's metabolites are fat-soluble, they stay in the blood far longer than those of cocaine and heroin, which reach undetectable levels between two and three days after use. Yet how long marijuana metabolites last depends on the individual's history of using the drug and sensitivity to testing, explained Allen St Pierre, president of the National Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), the Washington DC-based body that runs a drugs-testing hotline. To pass the transportation department's 50-nanogram test, daily users should abstain for between 30 and 35 days, weekly users 7 to 12 days, and occasional users 2 to 4 days. The first urine passed in the morning is more concentrated, he warned, but drinking water dilutes it.

So who is actually having to undergo the tests? An oceanographer got tested, because his boat came under transportation department regulations. A polymer chemist got tested, because his academic department received a military grant. Both scientists had enough forewarning to pass.

Well, if testing improves safety and lowers healthcare costs, I'm for it. Is that demonstrated in published, peer-reviewed scientific studies? I asked William Current, executive director of the American Council on Drug Education. 'Scientific studies that show this in the same way that science can prove that certain medicines can cure certain diseases?' Current replied: 'No.'

Now the National Research Council in Washington DC has released a new report, Under the Influence? Drugs and the American Work Force. 'The relationship between employee alcohol and other drug use and accidents is mixed,' the council concluded. In one study, postal workers who tested positive had higher accident rates; in another, they didn't. So there is no scientific proof of safety benefits. Still, 'testing or safety-sensitive positions may still be justified in the interest of public safety', they concluded. Society, explained the director of the study, Jacques Normand, accepts safety regulations that don't meet a scientific standard of proof.

Testing may indeed help in selecting better employees. 'Those who test positive for drugs before employment are, as a group, likely to have (about 50 per cent) higher rates of absenteeism, turnover, and disciplinary actions,' the report concluded. But testing employees regularly after hiring had no similar benefit. The report added: 'Many applicants who test positive could be hired without producing any job-related difficulties.'

'Alcohol is still by far our major problem,' said Bryan Finkle of the University of Utah, who also contributed to the study. Most work-place drug programmes neglect alcohol, the report stressed repeatedly. Drugs-positive employees had about 15 per cent higher medical expenses in one study, noted Normand. But, according to Finkle, tobacco smoking was the strongest predictor of negative consequences for an individual's health.

Shockingly, 25 per cent of companies use screening tests alone. Samples are first screened with immuno-assays, which are unreliable (one study reported 3 per cent false positives) and must be confirmed by gas chromatograph/mass spectroscopy (GC/MS). 'Des-pite what careful science demands, there are unregulated drug-testing programs that do not employ confirmation testing,' the report said. It has even been found that poppy-seed bagels cause false positives for opiates.

NORML gets two to three calls a week from people who have failed a test and been fired, or not hired, though they credibly maintain that they have not used illicit drugs, said St Pierre. 'At least one of those a week is from the criminal justice system.' Many small police departments don't use GC/MS 'because it's too expensive'.

NORML agrees that people shouldn't be high or impaired while working, driving or studying. They would accept saliva and blood tests, and game-like performance tests, which are harder to beat, and measure current impairment, not past use.

But employers have no right to control off-the-job behaviour that doesn't affect workplace performance, NORML maintains. So employees have a right to 'educate themselves' about beating an unjustified test, said St Pierre. Anecdotal evi-dence suggests that six drops of bleach, detergent, or blood, or crystals of bleach or sodium hydroxide concealed under the fingernails, can foil the enzyme test. The claim is that screening tests use polyclonal antibodies and their binding affinity is aff-ected by pH, salinity and other factors. 'Half-true,' says Finkle. They foul the reagent, but are caught in a good testing protocol.

I can accept being tested for legitimate personnel and safety reasons. But Reagan showed few signs of being concerned about health and safety, slashing, as he did, federal workplace safety inspections, eliminating research into workplace fatalities and destroying public health programmes for infectious diseses with subsequent tragic results. The 'War on Drugs' is a morality campaign by social conservatives to impose their own drugs preferences - alcohol and nicotine - on everyone else. I resent that.

I took my urine test at a discreet Metpath lab in Manhattan's financial district. The technician gave me a plastic cup with taped-on liquid crystal thermometer, and left me alone in a bathroom with a toilet containing blue-dyed water, and a sink with a defunct tap. I returned the cup, the technician transferred the sample to a bottle, and then had me sign a label, which he used to seal the cap. I could have brought clean urine in a condom, kept it warm in a thermos, and hidden it under my shirt.

It wasn't necessary. A week later, I got my results: pass.

Norman Bauman is a journalist in New York.