In the Nation, Isabel Macdonald has an excellent long read on the history of U.S. drug testing, beginning with a government program to test returning Vietnam War veterans and the drug-testing provisions in President Ronald Reagan’s Drug Free Workplace Act as part of the misdirected War on Drugs. Even then, the medical community dismissed the Act’s provisions requiring all federal grantees to test employees as “chemical McCarthyism,” as well as unscientific and discriminatory, since it was more likely to capture days-old marijuana use than frequent consumption of cocaine or alcohol. But the movement nonetheless grew from an anti-drug campaign into an industry with its own trade association, after several moneyed interests like Hoffman-La Roche, the maker of Valium and sleeping pills, got into the business:
The company established one of the first major drug-testing labs in America and won an early urine-testing contract with the Pentagon, leading to $300 million in annual sales by 1987. The following year, Hoffmann-La Roche stepped up its sales efforts with the launch of a major PR and lobbying campaign to “mobilize corporate America to confront the illicit drug problem in their workplaces.” The drug manufacturer called its new campaign “Corporate Initiatives for a Drug-Free Workplace.”
Before long, with the help of a New Jersey–based lawyer named David Evans, Hoffmann-La Roche was organizing workshops around the country to convince employers to set up drug-testing programs. In an interview with The Nation, Evans likened his role to that of “a doctor coming in to talk about how to set up a medical device.” During that first campaign, 1,000 employers signed up.[…]
The drug-testing industry took aim at lawmakers as much as employers. Hoffmann-La Roche, for instance, worked “with federal and state government officials,” according to a press release issued by the PR company hired to market the campaign. Lerner told the press that the drug company also envisioned a “grassroots strategy” to prevent states from passing laws to decriminalize marijuana.
By 2006, 84 percent of American employers were reporting that they drug-tested their workers. Today, drug testing is a multi-billion-dollar-a-year industry. DATIA [Drug & Alcohol Testing Industry Association] represents more than 1,200 companies and employs a DC-based lobbying firm, Washington Policy Associates. Hoffmann-La Roche’s former consultant, David Evans, now runs his own lobbying firm and has ghostwritten several state laws to expand drug testing. Most significant, in the 1990s Evans crafted the Workplace Drug Testing Act for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), of which Hoffmann-La Roche was a paying member. Laying out protocols for workplace drug testing, the bill—which has been enacted into law in several states—upheld the rights of employers to fire employees who do not comply with their companies’ drug-free workplace program.
Over the past decade, lobbyists like Evans have focused on what a DATIA newsletter recently dubbed “the next frontier”—schoolchildren. In 2002, a representative from the influential drug-testing management firm Besinger, DuPont & Associates heralded schools as “potentially a much bigger market than the workplace.”
Because this drug testing tends to capture marijuana more than other drugs, proponents of the movement have increasingly demonized marijuana use most of all. Robert Dupont, who served as drug policy director under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, had advocated decriminalizing marijuana and its use a “minor problem” before he became a “drug-testing management” consultant. Then in 1978, he declared marijuana “in many ways” the “worst drug of all the illegal drugs,” later explaining in a PBS special that, “I realized that these public policies were symbolic—all that really mattered was you were for [the decriminalization of marijuana] or you were against it…. I think about it as a litmus test.”
Now, with fewer and fewer employers implementing drug tests because they have shown “no demonstrable return on investment,” the industry has turned to another lucrative market: those receiving public assistance and unemployment benefits. Several recently passed state laws that require public benefits applicants to take drug tests have been struck down by courts, but that hasn’t stopped other states from moving forward with random drug-testing provisions. In South Carolina in 2012, with unemployment still above 9 percent, state legislators pushed three different bills to drug-test the unemployed. And several other states have done the same in the wake of a federal provision that authorizes the tests. Of course, these laws propose testing for drugs consumed illegally without a prescription. So if those consuming marijuana for stress or trouble sleeping happen to turn instead to prescription use of another federally legal drug, such as Valium or sleeping pills, Hoffman-La Roche just happens to have profited twice over from the process.
Nicole Flatow is the Deputy Editor of ThinkProgress Justice. Previously, she was Associate Director of Communications for the American Constitution Society. Nicole has also worked for several legal and general circulation newspapers, including The Daily Record and The New York Law Journal, and was a legal fellow at Bread for the City, where she represented low-income D.C. residents in housing and public benefits matters. She received her J.D. from the University of Virginia School of Law, and her B.A. in Philosophy, Politics and Law from Binghamton University, where she was editor in chief of her campus newspaper.