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Obama Administration Pushes Drug Testing in Workplace, But Not For Everybody

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Colorado House Democratic Leader Mark Ferrandino, Rep, Dist 2, poses Friday March 23, 2012, with one of the small plastic cups he handed out to fellow lawmakers in Denver as a suggestion that if people who receive public assistance should face drug tests, so should lawmakers. Republicans who are pushing Welfare drug testing agreed to require public officials to submit to testing, too. (AP Photo/Kristen Wyatt)
Colorado House Democratic Leader Mark Ferrandino, Rep, Dist 2, poses Friday March 23, 2012, with one of the small plastic cups he handed out to fellow lawmakers in Denver as a suggestion that if people who receive public assistance should face drug tests, so should lawmakers. Republicans who are pushing Welfare drug testing agreed to require public officials to submit to testing, too. (AP Photo/Kristen Wyatt)

WASHINGTON -- The government wants businesses to drug test their workers to boost productivity and reduce health care costs, according to the 2012 National Drug Control Report released Tuesday.

But not everyone in America should have to pee in a cup, according to a spokesman for the Obama administration agency that issued the report.

"While we believe that employers can use testing as one of a variety of tools to help guide employees suffering from substance abuse disorders into treatment –- which as we announced yesterday is not a moral failing but a treatable disease -– it is certainly not our policy that every employer in America ought to test and punish employees," Rafael Lemaitre, spokesman for the administration's Office of National Drug Control Policy, said in an email.

The comments come amid a wave of state and federal proposals that would require the poor and unemployed to prove they're not on drugs in order to receive government benefits. In many instances, Republican proponents of drug testing have argued that since most businesses require workers to drug test, the government should do the same for those seeking welfare or unemployment insurance while they search for work.

"For a vast majority of very large companies, or private and public sector jobs in general, drug testing is something that’s mandatory," state Sen. Steve Smith (R-Maricopa), sponsor of a stalled drug testing bill in Arizona, told HuffPost in March. "As far as I'm concerned, if you're on drugs, you probably won't make the best applicant or interviewee."

In February, Congress gave states leeway to drug test unemployment claimants seeking new jobs in industries that typically require applicants to pass drug tests. Republicans, using 2006 data, suggested a whopping 84 percent of employers typically required drug tests from new hires. According to the most recent information from the Society for Human Resource Management, 57 percent of businesses required all job candidates to pass drug tests in 2011. Another 10 percent tested only certain candidates.

Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.) said he thought only a "small percentage" of workers would be affected by the new drug testing law. (The U.S. Labor Department has not offered guidance to states on the matter.) Democrats resisted a much broader GOP drug testing proposal, accepting the more limited version as part of a deal that reauthorized an expiring payroll tax cut and federal unemployment insurance.

"Democrats definitely fought against the drug testing of unemployment applicants, arguing it was punitive and costly, so for the White House to come out in favor of testing every American who works seems a little hypocritical," said Bill Piper, a lobbyist for the Drug Policy Alliance, a group that advocates for drug law reform.

"Drug testing has nothing to do with what goes on in the workplace. Drug testing is all about finding out what people did in their time off, and they're only detecting past marijuana use," said Piper, who noted that marijuana stays in a person's system longer than other drugs.

The administration doesn't think everybody should be tested, but the report says workplaces can be better off through testing and other measures.

"The consequences of illicit drug use in America’s workforce include job-related accidents and injuries, absenteeism, health care costs, and lost productivity," the administration's drug control report says. "Workplace programs that provide clear policies regarding drug use; offer prevention and education opportunities for employers and supervisors; conduct drug testing to detect and deter use; and support referral and treatment for those who have substance use disorders can play a large role in reducing the demand for drugs throughout our Nation and in helping drug users get into treatment."

A 2002 feature story in Reason, a libertarian magazine, traced the roots of private-sector workplace drug testing to the government's War on Drugs, starting with the Reagan administration's push for drug-free federal workplaces in 1986. Private employers with big government contracts followed suit. "If it weren't for the war on drugs, it seems likely that employers would treat marijuana and other currently illegal intoxicants the way they treat alcohol, which they view as a problem only when it interferes with work," Reason's Jacob Sullum wrote.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported Reason magazine is published by the Cato Institute. It's published by the Reason Foundation.

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