Tuesday, November 15, 2016


When Did We Decide That?

I’ve been looking hard at barriers to middle-wage employment lately, both for personal interest and in service of Brookdale’s goal of rebuilding the middle class in Monmouth County.  And I stumbled over one that has left me confused, and that I hope my readers can help me understand.

We know already about skills gaps, especially in high-tech fields.  We know about incarceration rates, and we have some sense of their effects on the close family members of the incarcerated.  We know about economic cycles.  And every area has its own local factors unique to it; here, they include the loss of a military base and the fallout from Hurricane Sandy.

But in reading up on election results, I was struck by another one.  Without ever really having the conversation, as a society, we seem to have decided to outsource the war on drugs to private employers.

Referenda legalizing marijuana for recreational use passed in several states, having already passed in several others.  It’s legal for documented medicinal use in many more, and I’m told that getting the relevant documentation is less strenuous in some places than others.  The culture seems to be saying, albeit in stages and regionally, that it has better things to worry about.  

But during the same period that many state legal barriers have fallen, employer drug screening has become widespread.  

In talking with some local employers about the gaps they’re struggling to fill, I’ve heard repeatedly that the single biggest barrier to finding good people is getting candidates who can pass a drug test.  Tests snag an alarming number of people.  That’s especially true in the jobs that don’t require graduate degrees but that do pay pretty well, such as the skilled trades.  

It used to be that the state was tough on drug users, but employers mostly didn’t care as long as you were sober at work.  Now, at least with pot, it’s almost the other way around.  I don’t remember us ever consciously making that decision, at least as a culture.

It’s hardly news that America is deeply confused about what it thinks of drug use.  Even now, in the states where it’s legal, federal law still bans it, which leads to some odd business practices around banking.  Critics of the drug war have noted, correctly, that attitudes towards opiate abuse changed shortly after the heroin epidemic caught on among white people.  The opiate epidemic itself seems to have been the byproduct of legal prescription painkillers made popular in the 90’s.  The ebb and flow of drug fashions, and the correlation to demographics, offers plenty of fodder for sociologists.  That’s not new.

But the growing disconnect between public law (the state) and private law (employers) on the consequences of marijuana use seems to be ignored in policy discussion, even as it’s obvious on the ground.  

It’s not something that job training programs can fix.  We can train scads of people and do it well, but if they fail their drug tests, we can’t do anything about that.  (In fact, we get indirectly punished for it, since job training programs are judged on placements and salaries.)  As near as I can tell, employer testing is either mandated (pilots) or optional; I don’t think it’s banned anywhere.  It seems to be growing.  

I’ve been reading about adult men, ages 25-54, having the lowest labor force participation rate since we’ve tracked the numbers.  And I’ve been hearing employers complain about people failing drug tests.  And I’ve been watching public support for pot legalization grow,  And I’m thinking, hmm.

Should curbs on employer drug testing be part of the economic development conversation?  

Without that, we’re flooring the accelerator and the brake at the same time, which just throws everyone around and doesn’t get us very far.  

I might be off-base on this, and that’s fine.  My concern is that I don’t recall us ever even having the conversation, and the new system is having devastating effects on the ground.

"We" didn't decide anything; the oligarchy just found yet another irrelevant way to make ordinary working people's lives worse.

This has become so widespread that I assume there's an incentive somewhere driving employers to drug test. I suspect insurance companies and/or some part of the federal government is encouraging employers to drug screen, but I haven't actually done the research to see if that's so.
"Should curbs on employer drug testing be part of the economic development conversation?"

Yes. In fact, screening for substance use that is *legal* (even if not in your state) should be *illegal.* [Alternatively, let's screen for alcohol use...that'll make millions of people really happy. (snark)]
A few observations:

1) Maybe you should exclude students from an AS program if they cannot meet the requirements for a job in that area. We already do that with nursing, refusing admission if they have a criminal record that includes convictions for crimes against people that are explicitly excluded from working in health care. [I don't know if we do the same for elementary education or pre-K majors.]

2) You should ask your local employers! Their workmen's comp might take a dim view of a person using power tools while high (on whatever). From what I understand, mostly from the "ban the box" movement regarding a criminal record, is that most random drug testing is for jobs where there is a presumption of a hazard to self or others. In an office environment it is usually targetted at a person whose performance has changed for the worse, not everyone. That is why blanket drug testing of persons on welfare or disability or most public employees has been rejected by the courts.

3) I dislike your framing of the "opiate" problem. What changed is that the person pushing "heroin" is now your doctor or dentist, who hands out the latest opioid like candy with no instructions at all on the risks or proper use of the latest synthetic heroin substitute. Addiction, fed by unscrupulous doctors, follows. This is very different from the way people first encounter heroin or cocaine or opium in our society, and vastly increased the risk of addiction.

Did you know that heroin was first developed and marketed as a safe, non-addictive substitute for morphine? Now people are using heroin as a cheap illegal substitute for legal prescription versions of the same opioid-type of drug.
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A egregious Reagan era holdover:

In 1986, the Reagan Administration began recommending a drug testing program for employers as part of the War on Drugs program. In 1988, Drug Free Workplace regulations required that any company with a contract over $25,000 with the Federal government provide a Drug-Free Workplace. This program must include drug testing. In December, The Omnibus Transportation Employee Testing Act of 1991 required drug and alcohol testing of safety sensitive employees in aviation, trucking, railroads, mass transit, and pipelines. These industries included Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), Maritime (USCG), Pipeline (PHMSA), Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), and the Federal Transit Authority (FTA). According to Department of Transportation data (2008), the number of workers who are subject to drug testing is approximately 6 million.

Private employers also saw the value of drug testing and instituted Drug-Free Workplace programs. Today, approximately 90% of Fortune 1000 companies and 62% of all employers in the United States have mandatory drug-testing programs. Several states have initiated legislation that rewards employers who institute drug testing for employees. They receive discounts on workers' compensation premiums if they comply with state drug testing regulations. Today 47 of the 50 states have legislation or court cases that regulate specific drug-testing requirements. In 2008, approximately 50 million drug screens were performed on employees by 40 different SAMHSA certified laboratories.

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