January 16, 2004

Expanded drug testing considered for federal employees

By Amelia Gruber

Federal workers could face a broader range of drug testing under a policy being considered by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

The new policy would allow federal agencies to screen samples of workers' hair, saliva and sweat for signs of drug use, according to a recent Associated Press report. A SAMHSA spokeswoman on Friday confirmed that agency officials are discussing a new drug testing policy, and said further details will likely appear in the Federal Register within the next few months.

The policy under consideration would allow agencies to better tailor testing to their particular needs, the SAMHSA spokeswoman said. It would not do away with urine testing, she added, but would simply provide alternatives.

Federal law allows agencies to screen workers for drug use, but a relatively small percentage of government employees actually undergo testing. SAMHSA performs roughly 200,000 drug tests annually. Federal employees in security-related positions or in jobs requiring clearances are most likely to face testing.

Some agencies might want to screen workers for habitual drug use, while others might be interested in whether drugs are impairing an employee's work on a given day, the SAMHSA spokeswoman explained. Urine tests are effective in detecting very recent drug use, while other types of tests pick up drug residue dating back weeks or months.

Government agencies have little business discerning whether employees have used drugs in the past, said Allen St. Pierre, a spokesman for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, a group that advocates the legalization of marijuana. Furthermore, hair and saliva tests give employers access to workers' DNA. "These tests allow employers to go on a virtual fishing expedition of their employees' private, off-the-job personal habits and practices," he said.

Drug tests should only be used to ensure that certain workers in highly sensitive jobs are able to perform their daily duties, St. Pierre said. "You don't want your pilot to be high on drugs...nobody does."

Even in those situations, there are more effective ways of determining whether an employee's work ability is impaired, St. Pierre added. For instance, computer simulation techniques can test eye-hand coordination and depth perception at any given time. These tests ensure that workers are alert without invading privacy, he said.

Hair, sweat and saliva screenings can detect drug use as far back as 180 days, depending on the circumstances, St. Pierre said. But these tests are not necessarily adept at picking up drug use within the past day. These tests are also "unsupported by the scientific literature," he said, making their accuracy somewhat debatable.

While urine tests are not infallible, they are preferable to the new testing methods SAMHSA is considering, St. Pierre said.

SAMHSA is not set on any policy at this time, the agency spokeswoman emphasized. She added that agency officials could end up sticking to current drug testing rules.