The plight of Sha’Carri Richardson, a track standout who was suspended from competing for one month after testing positive for THC, the main chemical found in marijuana, made national headlines after the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency announced its findings last week. The rule dashed her dreams of competing in her signature Tokyo Olympics event, the 100-meter race, despite THC not being a performance-enhancing drug. Richardson said she used it in the aftermath of her mother’s death.
The clear inequity of Richardson’s treatment should spur us to discard outdated requirements for drug abstinence for workers whose private use doesn’t affect professional performance.
This individual tragedy is replicated on a smaller scale across the United States each day in cases that take place far from the public eye and receive little of the public outrage that greeted the punishment meted out to Richardson. Millions of people face unjust consequences and discrimination at work for drugs used recreationally in their private lives. The clear inequity of Richardson’s treatment should spur us to discard outdated requirements for drug abstinence for workers whose private use doesn’t affect professional performance.
Employer-mandated drug tests are often a condition of employment. They can be given to someone when they accept an offer of employment, with the offer being conditional on a negative test result, and then given routinely and randomly throughout the process of someone’s employment. Drug testing is federally mandated for professions involved in transportation (airline, railroad, 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 offsite drug use. Additionally, the 1988 Drug-Free Workplace Act requires that organizations that receive federal contracts maintain drug-free workplaces. While this act does not require the employer to test for drugs, it does require employees to report any convictions related to drug use and for the employer to issue a sanction thereafter.
A common justification for drug testing is that some occupations, such as driving a truck or piloting an airplane, require people to not be impaired on the job. But there is scant evidence that drug screening prevents accidents on the job. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for progressive drug policy, drug testing is often inaccurate, can’t pinpoint how much of a substance someone has used and, crucially, doesn’t detect current impairment, just the presence of certain chemicals in a person’s system.
At the same time, we don’t ban consumption of other substances that have the potential to affect the performance of an individual. Alcohol, in particular, kills about 95,000 people a year, including around 10,000 in motor vehicle accidents, according to the National Institutes of Health. Yet we don’t test for alcohol impairment through stigmatizing and humiliating tests.
Moreover, the effects of this abstinence-only policy are damaging to both the people who are ensnared in it as well as society as a whole. In particular, for the minority of drug users who have problematic relationships with controlled substances, denying employment opportunities makes coping with and overcoming drug addiction harder.
One of us speaks from experience: Roxxanne has been in recovery from using opiates for nine years. We know the path toward recovery is not a straight line and that some people will continue to use drugs as they make this journey. Relying on abstinence-only employment policies only makes it more difficult for people to receive treatment because it perpetuates a cycle of unemployment and precarious housing. This does not help someone enter recovery.
More broadly, despite the fact that every race and class in America uses drugs, drug testing is disproportionately targeted toward Black, Latinx and low-income employees: They are used in fields that contain more Black and Latinx workers than other industries, and Black people are more likely to be fired for failing a drug test. We all have heard the stories about cocaine use on Wall Street, yet you’d have difficulty finding a drug test being administered to those roaming the halls of the New York Stock Exchange.
There’s also the compelling fact that the marijuana that Richardson took as well as many other drugs can easily be consumed legally. More and more states are legalizing marijuana, and some states like Oregon have decriminalized drugs altogether. Accordingto Quest Diagnostics, a company that administers medical labs and tests, positivity rates for marijuana have risen as much as 35 percent among those they’ve tested between 2019 and 2020, in one sign of how widespread consumption is.
Our archaic use of drug testing at the workplace is a remnant of the drug war and reflects society’s discomfort with the idea of drugs, which ultimately contributes to a culture of stigma and shame in which people feel they have to hide their drug use. This culture further contributes to the overdose crisis — which killed more than 80,000 people from 2019 into 2020. When people are forced into the shadows, they are less likely to use drugs safely, such as by doing so in the company of other people and having naloxone so someone can administer aid in the case of an overdose.
It has been a difficult year. People have used substances to cope with the pandemic, and they will use substances as they get back out to see friends and party. Whether or not someone uses drugs in a problematic way, they can be negatively impacted by drug testing. The Biden administration can take the first few 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 enter the 21st century and leave drug testing where it belongs, in the past.