The plight of Sha’Carri Richardson, a track star who was suspended from competition for a month after testing positive for THC, the main chemical found in marijuana, made national headlines after the US Anti-Doping Agency announced its findings last week. The rule shattered his dreams of competing in his flagship event of the Tokyo Olympics, the 100-meter race, although THC is not a performance-enhancing drug. Richardson said she used it following her mother’s death.
The manifest unfairness of Richardson’s treatment should prompt us to reject outdated drug abstinence requirements for workers whose private use does not affect work performance.
This individual tragedy is reproduced on a smaller scale across the United States every day in cases that unfold out of the public eye and receive little of the public outrage that greeted the punishment inflicted on Richardson. Millions of people face unfair consequences and discrimination at work for drugs used for recreational purposes in their private lives. The manifest unfairness of Richardson’s treatment should prompt us to reject outdated drug abstinence requirements for workers whose private use does not affect work performance.
Employer-mandated drug tests are often a condition of employment. They can be given to someone when they accept a job offer, with the offer conditional on a negative test result, and then routinely and randomly handed out throughout someone’s employment process. Drug testing is mandated by the federal government for occupations involved in transportation (air, rail, bus) and in trucking.
Within the federal government itself, an executive order signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986 requires all federal agencies to test employees for drugs and prohibits drug use offsite. In addition, the Drug-Free Workplaces Act 1988 requires organizations that receive federal contracts to maintain drug-free workplaces. While this law does not require the employer to perform drug testing, it does require employees to report any convictions related to drug use and the employer to issue a sanction afterwards.
A common rationale for drug testing is that certain occupations, such as driving a truck or piloting an airplane, require people not to be debilitated on the job. But there is little evidence that drug testing prevents workplace accidents. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for progressive drug policy, drug tests are often inaccurate, cannot determine how much substance a person has consumed and, most importantly. , do not detect current impairments, just the certain chemicals in a person’s system.
At the same time, we do not prohibit the consumption of other substances that may affect an individual’s performance. Alcohol, in particular, kills about 95,000 people a year, including about 10,000 in traffic accidents, according to the National Institutes of Health. Yet we do not test for alcohol impairment through stigmatizing and demeaning tests.
In addition, the effects of this abstinence-only policy are damaging both for those trapped in it and for society as a whole. In particular, for the minority of drug users who have problematic relationships with controlled substances, denying employment opportunities makes it more difficult to manage and control addiction.
One of us speaks from experience: Roxxanne has been recovering for nine years after using opiates. We know that the road to recovery is not a straight line and that some people will continue to use drugs throughout their journey. Relying on employment policies focused only on abstinence only makes it more difficult to treat people as it perpetuates a cycle of unemployment and precarious housing. It doesn’t help someone get into recovery.
More generally, despite the fact that every race and class in America uses drugs, drug tests disproportionately target Black, Latino and low-income employees: are more likely to be fired for failing a test drug testing. We’ve all heard stories of cocaine use on Wall Street, but you’d be hard pressed to find a drug test administered to those who walk the halls of the New York Stock Exchange.
There is also the compelling fact that the marijuana Richardson took as well as many other drugs can easily be used legally. More and more states are legalizing marijuana, and some states like Oregon have completely decriminalized drugs. According to Quest Diagnostics, a company that administers laboratories and medical tests, positivity rates for marijuana rose 35% among those they tested between 2019 and 2020, a sign of the scale of use.
Our archaic use of workplace drug testing is a holdover from the war on drugs and reflects society’s unease with the idea of drugs, which ultimately contributes to a culture of stigma and shame. where people feel pressured to hide their drug use. This culture is further contributing to the overdose crisis – which killed over 80,000 people from 2019 to 2020. When people are forced to stay in the shadows, they are less likely to use drugs safely, for example by doing this with other people and having naloxone so that someone can give help in case of an overdose.
It has been a difficult year. People have used substances to cope with the pandemic, and they will use substances when they return to see friends and party. Whether or not a person uses drugs problematically, they can be negatively affected by drug tests. The Biden administration can take the first steps to rectify our unhealthy relationship with drugs and work by rescinding Executive Order 12564 and pushing Congress to repeal the Drug-Free Workplace Act. It’s time to step into the 21st century and put drug testing in its place of the past.