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No Urine Test for Addiction

Posted Apr 02 2010 11:00am

Drug wars never work.

The recognition that drug wars create crime is long overdue. More than fifteen years ago, a study of the economics of street drug dealing by the Rand Corporation confirmed that most drug dealers make more money illegally than they could possibly make through any form of legitimate employment. That equation has not changed.  For minors, drug dealing is without a doubt the best-paying job available to them. 

The effort to combat drugs has poisoned our relationships with other countries. Farmers in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Afghanistan are not the source of the drug problem. The danger of concentrating on the interdiction of foreign shipments is that it breeds the fantasy solution—a belief that the nation’s drug problem can be solved offshore, if the barriers and borders of the United States are vigorously defended.

Drug wars weaken the force of law at home. Minor drug laws are flouted with impunity, while basic civil rights are under attack in the name of national security. Drug wars ask a lot from citizens:  weakened rules of evidence, the erosion of the doctrine of probable cause, and an end to the presumption of innocence, for starters.

A different strategy would obviate the need for these enhanced powers of repression and control. Drug wars foster a form of social hypocrisy. Many of the country’s finest doctors, scientists, judges, and legislators have routinely used illegal drugs in their past. Yet their lives were not irreparably damaged, their futures thrown on the trash heap. Millions of productive citizens now in their 40s and 50s know that youthful drug use need not be permanently deleterious. They dare not speak up, of course. The people who have the most experience with these drugs have been systematically excluded from the public debate. The emerging models of addictive disease call into question almost every aspect of drug wars as they have been historically waged.

For many Americans, the use of alcohol, cocaine, or any other addictive drug is a matter of personal recreational choice. None of the strategies employed in the drug wars of the past four decades has been able to override the fact that prohibition can only be effective with the cooperation of the citizenry. Without voluntary compliance, the only recourse is federal coercion; some Orwellian nightmare of detection, control, forced detoxification, and detention.

Only a fraction of the nation’s corporations had drug-testing programs in place in 1990, but the number has climbed dramatically ever since. Inaccuracies and false positives have bedeviled drug-testing programs from the outset. Ibuprofen, available over the counter as Advil or Motrin, registers on some tests as positive for marijuana. Cold remedies such as Nyquil, Allerest, Contac, Dimetapp, and Triaminicin all contain a substance, phenylpropanolamine, which sometimes shows up as positive for amphetamine. The list of potential false positives is a long one.

Many drug testing programs do not test for alcohol, and even if such constitutionally dubious testing programs were unerringly accurate in what they do test for, there would still be valid reasons not to adopt them. Few people would insist that the presence of alcohol metabolites in the bloodstream is incontrovertible proof of incompetence on the job. But we frequently make this assumption in the case of illegal drugs, in part because the drug tests themselves are not refined enough to reliably distinguish between casual use and consistent abuse. There is no urine test for addiction. 


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