SAMHSA Study Calls for More Workplace Drug Treatment, but Also Supports More Drug Testing 9/10/99

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Ted Bridges, Drug Policy Foundation, [email protected]

On Wednesday (9/8), the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) released a study entitled "Worker Drug Use and Workplace Policies and Practices" to kick off "National Alcohol and Drug Addiction Recovery Month." SAMHSA announced that special questions in the 1994 and 1997 National Household Surveys on Drug Abuse revealed that 70 percent of illicit drug users, age 18-49, are employed full-time. There were 6.3 million current illicit drug users (7.7% of the full-time workforce), 6.2 million heavy alcohol users (7.6%), and 1.6 million workers who were both current drug users and heavy drinkers. These levels were essentially unchanged from 1994 data.

Administration officials called for greater access to drug treatment for employees. Dr. H. Westley Clark, the director of SAMHSA's Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, said, "Employers can help their own bottom line, while at the same time help reduce substance abuse, by creating written policies about drug and alcohol abuse and encouraging substance abusers to enter treatment."

How to "encourage" drug-using employees to get into drug treatment? That was not addressed explicitly at the Capitol Hill press conference. That may be because the report's finding overlook a crucial distinction between the drug users and the drinkers. The survey is designed to identify (1) current illegal drug users -- defined as _any_ drug use in the past month -- and (2) heavy alcohol users -- defined as "drinking five or more drinks on the same occasion on each of at least five days in the previous 30 days." Current drug users are less likely to include employees who have problems with their use that carry over to job performance.

Indeed, when one reporter asked whether SAMHSA's survey distinguished between on-the-job drug use and off-the-job use, the report's project officer, Janet Greenblat, simply said no.

While the administration officials did not spotlight workplace drug testing in their presentations at the Capitol Hill press conference, the survey does seem to approve of the increases in workplace drug testing that have occurred since the 1994 survey. Overall drug testing, as reported by 18-49 year olds, increased from 44% to 49% in 1997, which breaks down to 28% of small businesses, 58% of medium businesses, and 74% of large businesses.

The report's endorsement of increased urine and hair testing runs counter to a report released last week by the American Civil Liberties Union (see Week Online coverage at The ACLU found that drug testing neither deterred drug use nor predicted the likelihood of on-the-job accidents. One study of the federal government's drug testing program estimated that it cost $77,000 to find one drug user.

"Federal drug officials are still using scare tactics to sell employers on drug testing," said ACLU National Taskforce on Civil Liberties in the Workplace Director Lewis Maltby. "Independent researchers have found that employees who occasionally smoke marijuana in their homes are just as safe and productive as those who occasionally drink beer off the job. Drug testing does little or nothing to improve a company's bottom line. It wastes company assets and alienates employees."

The SAMHSA survey also suggests that current drug use is disruptive because workers who reported current use were more likely than those who did not to have worked for three or more employers, to have voluntarily left an employer in the past year, and to have skipped one or more days of work in the past month. Presented alone, these findings build up SAMHSA's case for casting any past-month drug use as problematic for the workplace. However, the report also reveals that both illicit drug use and heavy alcohol use were highest among workers in transient occupations, such as food preparation, waiting tables, and bartending. These types of jobs tend to be less stable than workers in fields like "protective service" and "professional specialty," where SAMHSA found the lowest rates of reported current drug use.

When the SAMHSA report looked into the fields where reports of drug use were relatively low, it found that, for the most part, employers provided workers with "information" about alcohol and drug use or "written policies" regarding the people who use drugs. "It follows," the report claims, "that three of the four occupations with the lowest rates of drug use were also among the four occupations with the highest rates of drug information and policy in the workplace."

Not necessarily. One problem in getting at the truth of workplace drug use is that the survey asks a very sensitive question, so results could be underreported in certain fields, but not in others. Aside from that, it is equally plausible that employers and employees with critical public safety functions are more careful about any drug use -- on or off the job -- since it could interfere with their on-the-job responsibilities. Not only would employers be more likely to distribute information or have policies about alcohol and drug use, but employees themselves would also be more motivated in policing their personal habits to minimize on-the-job impairment. Just because food preparation workers, waiters, waitresses, and bartenders report above-average alcohol and drug use (as the survey found), it does not mean that they are not getting the right information from their employers.

SAMHSA's concern about job safety and productivity should mean that it favors impairment testing over urine and drug testing in the workplace. Impairment testing measures an employee's vision, reflexes and coordination and compares the results with the employee's baseline responses to determine whether he or she is capable of performing the job safely and effectively. These tests look beyond illegal drugs and chronic use of legal drugs to give the employer the best information ensuring workplace safety and productivity.

To get "Worker Drug Use and Workplace Policies and Programs: Results from the 1994 and 1997 NHSDA," call (800) 729-6686 or visit SAMHSA also unveiled a publication package for employers entitled "Making Your Workplace Drug Free," which is available from (800) 967-5752 or

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Issue #107, 9/10/99 First National Student Conference on Drug Policy and Justice, November 5-6, Washington, DC | New Mexico Poll: 60% Agree Drug War is Failing, Disagree on Solutions | Australia: UN Drug Official Slams Safe Injecting Room | Canada: Starbucks Needle Disposal Prompts Investigation | Insurance Company Reimburses Patient for Seized Marijuana | SAMHSA Study Calls for More Workplace Drug Treatment, but Also Supports More Drug Testing | Quote of the Week | Cato Institute Briefing Paper Warns of "Culture of Paramilitarism" in Law Enforcement | Editorial: Standing Up 101
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