Interview: Kenneth Curtis, the South Carolina Urine Felon 1/4/02

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During the 1990s, South Carolina pipe-fitter Kenneth Curtis, a non-drug user, repeatedly found himself subjected to invasive urine testing for drugs if he wanted to keep his job. Fed up by what he see as an unwarranted intrusion on his privacy, Curtis began a guerrilla crusade against urine testing, forming a company, Privacy Protection Services (http://www.privacypro.com), to provide clean urine kits to defeat drug tests.

In response, in 1999 South Carolina legislators passed a bill making it a felony crime to sell urine for the purpose of defeating or defrauding a drug test. Curtis shortly became the first and only person ever charged under the law, and on December 14, he was convicted and sentenced to six months in prison, with the possibility of six years if he violates probation or parole.

Curtis, who has used his case as a national soapbox for his attack on the urine testing industry, remains free while pending appeal. DRCNet spoke with Curtis this week from South Carolina, which he is prohibited from leaving as a condition of his appeal bond.

Week Online: What exactly is your business, and what are you hoping to accomplish?

Kenneth Curtis: My business is a platform for free speech directed against the urine testing industry. What we do is provide complete substitution kits that allow anyone to substitute our certified, pre-tested urine sample, because of our objections to the urine testing industry. They can find out a lot more than whether someone is using illicit substances. They can find out medical information that they aren't allowed to ask you by law. I was a pipe-fitter, and got tested about a dozen times a year.

I'm an American, I believe in civil liberties, and I was being presumed guilty without any presumption of innocence. I lay awake at night because I felt raped by the whole experience. I wanted to demonstrate how ridiculously invasive this whole thing is. I wanted to make a point. I'm not trying to help people pass drug tests; I'm trying to attack the whole idea that drug tests are proper in the workplace.

WOL: Don't employers have a right to test employees?

Curtis: That's correct. Impairment testing is logical and reasonable. If someone is in a position where he could potentially endanger the public or other workers, then an impairment test is the way to go. Not urine tests, not hair tests, not tests that measure the metabolic presence of some substance. Those tests do not measure the employee's ability to do the job, but they do allow employers access to health information they couldn't otherwise get. An employer can't ask you if you're diabetic or on anti-depressants, but these drug screens will reveal such information. Employers can use information gathered by urine tests and hair tests to get around fair hiring practices, but the tests can't tell them whether the employee can safely do the job.

WOL: So, how's business?

Curtis: Well, right now I am prohibited from selling any urine, but we're still selling the kits minus the urine. Every time they do something like this, it just drives it on. I wouldn't be doing any business at all if they hadn't drawn attention to me by making it illegal in the first place. Of course, this law was inspired by my activities, it was made for me, directed at me, and enforced against me. And only me. During my trial, we were prepared to provide evidence showing that other companies on the Internet were selling urine kits. The judge wouldn't allow that evidence, but I can't believe South Carolina authorities are not aware of it.

As I've said, the urine wasn't designed to beat drug tests; the whole idea was to illustrate the folly of the drug war and drug testing, to create media attention. What I'm really doing is telling people how easy it is to get over on the urine testing industry, and awareness of the issue is half the fight. I find it interesting that one person like me can foil a billion-dollar industry with just these things. When people stand up and start objecting, things will change. In the meantime, people who support the cause are buying the kits. Not only are you making a statement about the industry, but it's also a good way to aid my legal defense.

WOL: How have you been treated by South Carolina authorities?

Curtis: Selective prosecution is one word, I guess. How about a political vendetta? I've personally lampooned the person responsible for this law, Senate Chairman David L. Thomas (R), on the Montel Williams show, the Today Show, Politically Incorrect, and other national and local venues, and then after two years of leaving me alone, Thomas writes a letter demanding that South Carolina law officers enforce the statute. I tried civil actions and injunctions to keep them from enforcing the law, but the judges threw that out. Then I went to the state law enforcement center with my lawyer and gave the kits away to anyone who would take one. I gave one to the desk seargeant. They took me to the back of the station and called prosecutors, but he said to go home. I did business for two years after that before Thomas sicced the police on me. They did two undercover buys over the Internet, then arranged a purchase near my home. The next thing you know, they're raiding me like I was a drug dealer. Fifteen armed SWAT agents tore my house apart, trashed the place, but took nothing but business records. They didn't even seize my urine! That was a blatant attempt at intimidation -- I mean, kicking doors in and sending in SWAT teams for urine. That has to be a low point in the history of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division.

WOL: Did things go any better in court?

Curtis: Both the prosecutor and the judge were positively rabid, foaming at the mouth. We had a jury trial, but the judge wouldn't allow us to present any evidence. He made every effort to keep the real story from the jury. And I never had the intent to defraud drug tests, but that doesn't matter in court when the prosecutors say I intended to. It is hard to prove a negative. So I was found guilty, and the judge, true to form, gave me the maximum sentence, six years and a $40,000 fine, although he did suspend all but six months, but that still leaves me under their thumb for years. I wanted to show how ridiculous this whole urine testing law is and what I got is a dramatic illustration of how far the government is willing to go to prop up the war on drugs.

WOL: What now?

Curtis: We're appealing to the State Supreme Court and US federal courts. We are appealing constitutional issues as well as the verdict itself. I'm under a bond stipulation from the judge that I not participate in any business containing urine anywhere in the world. Their whole course is to try to break their opponents financially and thus break their will to fight. But I'm not made that way; all it does is make me madder, more determined.

WOL: You are potentially facing time in prison for your unique form of activism. Any regrets?

Curtis: No regrets. Well, yes, a couple. I regret that a jury of my peers didn't get to hear my defense. And never having been through a criminal proceeding, I now regret my naivete in thinking I could find justice in the criminal courts. I expect to be treated to the worst prison conditions South Carolina has to offer if I lose on appeal, but I will continue my course. I hope the courts will eventually uphold me. I can't believe the Founding Fathers wanted the courts to be doing what they did in South Carolina in my case.

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Issue #218, 1/4/02 Editorial: Worse Than Nothing | Mississippi Policeman Killed in Late December Drug Raid, Law Enforcement Dissidents Call for Better Way | Draconian New Ecstasy Law Now in Effect in Illinois | Interview: Kenneth Curtis, the South Carolina Urine Felon | Afghan Opium Production Set to Boom Again with Taliban Gone | Shining Path Reemerges in Peru, Maoist Guerrillas Profit from Prohibition in the Andes | London Police Extend Cannabis Decriminalization Experiment | New Hampshire Supreme Court: If Schools Want to Act as Police, They Must Follow Constitutional Standards | Media and Resources: New CSDP Drug Warrior Distortions Guide, Jefferson Fish in Newsday, Reason Magazine | Job Opening: Santa Monica | Internships at DRCNet | Alerts: Bolivia, HEA Drug Provision, DEA Hemp Ban, Ecstasy Bill, Mandatory Minimums, Medical Marijuana | The Reformer's Calendar
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