Workplace Drug Testing and Invasion of Privacy

Workplace Drug Testing and Invasion of Privacy

Americans generally believe they live in a free country. The founding documents of the United States guarantee the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These precepts are usually presumed to accord to all Americans the right to control their own personal affairs. One may satisfy one’s own wants and desires as long as those wants and desires do not interfere with the similar rights of others. Central to such freedom is a concept of privacy. Though not specifically described in the United States Constitution, the right to privacy has been established through legal precedent. In the cases of Poe v. Ullman (1961) and Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), the United States Supreme Court found that a “general right to privacy” did in fact exist within the Constitution (Samuels, 2004, p. 25). Griswold was a case about the legality of contraception in which the justices ruled that the use of contraception was protected by a right to privacy that was inherent in the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The justices; however, failed to declare that right fundamental, a categorization of basic rights that had attained legal status in the 1937 Supreme Court case of Palko v. Connecticut and which was considered to apply to rights or freedoms deemed fundamental to American social, cultural, governmental, and juridical tradition (Samuels, 2004, p. 45). Over the years, the right to privacy has been raised again and again in cases involving personal liberty,

As cases were brought challenging laws that regulated or prohibited not only contraceptives, but also abortion, assistance in dying, familial relations, and homosexual activities…. [And those involved] in assessing states’ purposes in criminalizing abortion, euthanasia, and homosexual activities.

(Samuels, 2004, p. 45)

The fact that the right to privacy should be so elastic as to be interpreted in opposite fashion on the same issue shows not only its underlying importance, but also the increasing invasion of the state into spheres of life once considered private. In the name of protecting public health, safety, and increasingly, national security, federal, state, and municipal governments have enacted ever more intrusive regulations. The right to privacy has even been infringed in the workplace as drug testing and other forms of probing investigation have become common. The issue of workplace drug testing serves to shape the very definition of privacy, and Americans’ rights as a free people.

Workplace drug testing has become commonplace largely as a result of the United States government’s “war on drugs” that became a major focus of federal policy under President Ronald Reagan. The “war” is justified based largely on notions of the deleterious effect of drugs on social, moral, and physical health. Drug use was portrayed as a personal problem, a defect within individual users, a disorder that deserved to be corrected through punitive measures, and by means of a campaign to demonize and ostracize individual users (Elwood, 1994, p. 11). The war on drugs was linked directly a larger war on crime, that many saw as directed against minorities and other “fringe elements” in the population. In short, the war on drugs was a means of social control; a method of imposing general homogenization in the name of achieving larger goals of social cohesion and obedience to authority:

Presidential drug war declarations make oblique references to housing projects and to urban areas and the people who live there. The absence of references to drug problems among white, suburban teenagers or affluent Republican adults fosters a perception that all is right with the world for these constituents under the paternal control of the presidency.

(Elwood, 1994, p. 11)

The 1986 Anti- Drug Abuse Act was passed without any real cost-benefit analysis, its projected benefits deriving, in large measure, from its supposed ability to wipe out a wide range of social ills, one of which included the conclusions of a Reagan-appointed drug policy official, Carlton Turner, that marijuana use caused homosexuality (Gerber, 2004, p. 40). The eradication of drug use was thus seen as essential in securing a peaceful and law abiding society. The workplace would be rendered harmonious through the application of random — and thus impartial — drug tests. Random drug testing is viewed as an antidote to widespread absenteeism, and increased risks of harm and injury — all potential drags on profit either directly or through their adverse affects on working conditions and relations between employees, and employees and management (Cann & De Belleroche, 2002, p. 277). Healthier workplaces were a specific goal of the 1999 public health strategy, “Saving Lives: Our Healthier Nation” (Cann & De Belleroche, 2002, p. 277).

As of 2004, more than eighty percent of large companies performed some form of workplace drug testing, including the use of urinalysis, the testing of hair samples, and the use of standardized self-reporting instruments with biological markers regarded as the most objective and reliable according to a 1999 study by Goldberger and Jenkins (Strada & Donohue, 2004, p. 80). A continual parade of new drugs strengthens the call for workplace drug testing. As drugs such as methamphetamines gain in popularity they are reported to be new scourges, responsible for all matter of social disorders. As always, the new drug is blamed for enormous economic losses — in the case of methamphetamines the United States Department of Labor estimates an annual cost of 100 billion dollars (Davis & Hueller, 2006). More specific to business, the United States Center for Substance Abuse Prevention, National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information asserts that methamphetamine user use up twice the amount of benefits as non-users and are absent from work fifty percent more often; the actual financial cost per company per methamphetamine user being, according to the University of Arkansas Center for Business and Economic Research, $42,000 a year (Davis & Hueller, 2006). The drug of choice may change, but the charges remain the same. The method, too, is nearly always invasive and punitive. What is rarely asked is why drugs — whether methamphetamine in the 2000s or crack cocaine in the 1980s and 1990s — are somehow so more disruptive than other intoxicants used down through the ages. As recently as the late Nineteenth Century, the definition of drug, as in “illicit” drug,” was often interchangeable with the term medicine,

The ability of psychoactive drugs to make one feel better was consistent with popular and professional conceptions of the function of medicine through much of the nineteenth century: the relief of troubling symptoms. Alcohol retained its status as a medicine in therapeutics textbooks into the 1920s. People took pills and drank tonics and pick-me-ups.

(Tracy & Acker, 2004, p. 166)

Medicine was seen as a way to give greater comfort to individual human beings, a fact that in itself, testifies to the idea that the use of drugs was considered a matter of personal choice. Government, and even physicians, did not actively interfere in these personal decisions. Ultimately, the effectiveness of a drug was left up to the judgment of the individual user. That drugs were not separated according to beneficial or harmful, shows further the prevailing belief that such drugs were used to ease pain and increase comfort, both physical and mental, the benefit of a given drug not being linked to some notion of potential physical or social harm. The fact that a certain drug comforted one person, while possibly, inducing criminal activity in another did not render that drug automatically undesirable. By the same token, it was left up to the individual to decide whether present day benefits outweighed possible future health effects — personal responsibility was key. Industrialization led many to view the human body as a kind of machine, one that was liable to stresses and breakdowns, the pressures of modern life leading to the increasingly common complaint of “nervous breakdown” (Barke, Fribush & Stearns, 2000, p. 565). Indeed, nervous breakdowns became most common at precisely the point in time when the earliest phase of the drug war began, in the very late Nineteenth Century:

Medical attacks and legal prohibitions on opiate use, from the 1890s onward, surely reduced some of the chemical supports that had previously conditioned stress. Never mentioned in the nervous breakdown literature, the coincidence in timing was nevertheless uncannily precise.

(Barke, Fribush & Stearns, 2000, p. 565)

An attitude was rapidly taking hold under which men and women were no longer complex beings with individual desires and needs. Desires and needs once attributed to personal preference or social predilections were now considered consequences of biology and other abstract scientific processes. The industrial machine had its correspondent in the human machine, and for the greater good of society both must be kept in perfect running order.

Thus, workplace drug testing is the latest round in an attempt to insinuate society and government into the place of the individual. A fundamental change in attitude launched the earliest phase of the drug war. Human health was seen in much the same way as the physical maintenance of industrial or technological equipment — witness the frequent recourse to economic figures of lost profits and time lost. Men and women are valued for their role as workers — workers not merely at a given company — but workers who form part of a larger industrial/technological organism that is the national, and increasingly, the global economy. Rights of privacy give way to rights of public utility:

People want, not only profits, efficiency, and productivity, but also security. In order to feel safer, we willingly surrender some of our independence, our privacy. We support random drug testing in the war against drugs; we welcome the idea of state trooper roadblocks in order to crack down on drunk drivers. We rationalize: these are good things and a little erosion of our Fourth Amendment protections against “unreasonable searches and seizures” seems a small price to pay for security and peace of mind.

(Wood, 1996, p. 94)

Forth Amendment or Fourteenth Amendment — it does not matter. Each guarantees some fundamental right we all possess as American citizens, as human beings with a heart and mind, and some say, soul. The more we are monitored by others, the more we feel compelled to monitor ourselves, self-censorship becomes a way of life, and “In many ways it is even worse, because it means we have ceased to fight; we have accepted the limitations on our freedom” (Wood, 1996, p. 97). Workplace drug testing is an unnecessary and highly invasive means of social control, for that is what is, plain and simple. Human beings do not require a government to make personal decisions for them, whether those decisions involve choices of whom to associate with, what to eat or drink, or what kind of drug to take. It is extremely easy to find the sources of social chaos and personal disaster in almost anything, or anyone, one wishes to destroy. People make different choices. People have different priorities. People need to make decisions for themselves. The right to privacy precludes a regime of workplace drug testing.


Barke, M., Fribush, R., & Stearns, P.N. (2000). Nervous Breakdown in 20th-Century American Culture. Journal of Social History, 33(3), 565.

Cann, W. & De Belleroche, J. (Eds.). (2002). Drink, Drugs and Dependence: From Science to Clinical Practice. New York: Routledge.

Davis, E., & Hueller, S. (2006). Strengthening the Case for Workplace Drug Testing: The Growing Problem of Methamphetamines. SAM Advanced Management Journal, 71(3), 4+.

Elwood, W.N. (1994). Rhetoric in the War on Drugs: The Triumphs and Tragedies of Public Relations. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.

Gerber, R.J. (2004). Legalizing Marijuana: Drug Policy Reform and Prohibition Politics. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Samuels, S.U. (2004). First among Friends: Interest Groups, the U.S. Supreme Court, and the Right to Privacy (N. Strossen, Ed.). Westport, CT: Praeger.

Strada, M.J., & Donohue, B.C. (2004). 6 Substance Abuse. In Psychopathology in the Workplace: Recognition and Adaptation, Thomas, J.C. & Hersen, M. (Eds.) (pp. 75-91). New York: Brunner-Routledge.

Tracy, S.W. & Acker, C.J. (Eds.). (2004). Altering American Consciousness: The History of Alcohol and Drug Use in the United States, 1800-2000. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.

Wood, D.N. (1996). Post-Intellectualism and the Decline of Democracy: The Failure of Reason and Responsibility in the Twentieth Century. Westport, CT: Praeger.

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