Could random drug testing cost you your job? Tobias Jones investigates
IF YOU ARE one of the millions of Britons who take Ecstasy on a Saturday night, or have the odd line of cocaine, or even just indulge in the occasional joint, you might be about to break into a toxic sweat: a report by the Forensic Science Service (FSS) published early last week highlighted that 1 million employees in this country now have to undergo testing for illegal drug use. And following the Government's Our Healthier Nation initiative, that number - and the number facing disciplinary action or dismissal - is likely to increase.

The FSS, an "executive agency" of the Home Office, found that an average of one in 10 employees tested positive for illegal drugs. Perhaps surprisingly, drug use was found to be equally common at all levels, from the shop floor to the boardroom, and across all age groups. It called for testing to be extended, so is it time to get scared? If you're reading this through a haze of last night and it wasn't all about alcohol, could you roll up at work tomorrow, get tested and promptly fired?

The answer is probably not, or at least not yet. Drug-testing in this country is still largely "targeted" at particular employees: you are much more likely to be tested regularly and rigorously if you work in particular fields, such as transport, medicine, heavy-industry, the armed forces and sport: professions where there is a clear need for practitioners to be squeaky clean.

There are some basic business reasons why other companies may be reluctant to introduce testing programmes. Morale can be poisoned by an atmosphere of suspicion, and, besides, testing is expensive. Breathalising costs pounds 10, but testing for drugs, where samples have to be sent away to laboratories, and repeated if positive, can often come out at almost pounds 100. London Transport suggests that the annual bill for its testing programme runs to six figures. Also, many companies will be aware that drugs testing will force them to confront what on earth they are going to do with the perhaps 15 per cent of their workforce who test positive.

Very few companies actually have a written policy on drugs, so whilst an employee may be involved in illegal activity, it might not contravene company rules. A report by the Institute of Personnel and Development shows that, whilst 90 per cent of companies have a policy on smoking, and 63 per cent a policy on alcohol, very few have formulated opinions on drug use. Users, and especially casual users, inhabit a grey area in most companies. Any new formulation of drugs policy by your company is clearly a first step towards testing.

Even where testing has been adopted as company policy, there are different types with different levels of risk for the casual user: pre-employment; random; "post-incident" and "with cause" - where the management single out those whose work they suspect, for whatever reason, is impaired by drug-use.

If you test positive, not all companies will automatically fire you, although it's unlikely to help your promotion prospects. The TUC suggests that the consequences of producing an impure urine sample (tests can also be carried out on blood, sweat and hair samples) depend on many things: the company's stated drugs policy, whether that policy is outlined in your contract, whether the test was conducted under duress, and of course the type and quantity of the drug involved. Many companies offer counselling.

But be in no doubt: a positive drugs test, even for "soft" drugs, can severely mark your card. Mark, 42, was in the Welsh Guards when he tested positive for cannabis. "Being in the forces marks you out from your peers in so many ways, I didn't want to make any more compromises on my lifestyle when on leave. I was away for two weeks and had maybe a couple of smokes. I was tested on my return, failed, and was discharged. That's a stigma that all future employers are aware of, and some obviously assume I'm narcotics-crazed."

Mark's story is repeated every week in the banking sector, an area increasingly keen to test for drugs, particularly if there's an American parent company.

The International Petroleum Exchange in the city of London has recently introduced a policy of testing. The dates of testing are determined by the chief executive and the private security firm employed to carry them out. Sniffer dogs appear - unannounced - at the entrance, and a random selection of people will be asked to produce their identity cards and a sweat swab. The company, which employs about 110 people, gave a statement of intent to employees in a letter, and says the policy is "purely to improve performance". The company offers those testing positive "rehabilitation on a confidential basis", although dismissal is an option.

All of which points to an atmosphere of increasing narcotic puritanism already well-known to Americans, where the process is fraught with difficulties. There, drug-testing has become a multi-million dollar industry (worth some $350m at the last count), and single companies like SmithKline Beecham test up to 5 million people a year. But the result is not falling levels of drug-use - failure rates have held steady at between 5 and 10 per cent - but increasingly sophisticated attempts at evasion: the Internet and chemists offer all sorts of remedies to avoid detection. There is - as in prison and in rehab - a trade in "clean" urine, and you can buy over- the-counter drinks to mask particular substances.

There is already opposition to blanket testing here. Mike Goodman of Release, a charity which provides information about drug use, says drug testing "is becoming the witch-hunt, the Salem, of the 20th century. We are very concerned about testing. It is a fairly sinister form of lifestyle screening that has little to do with an individual's ability to do the job. It is a degrading and inhumane process. If there is any role for testing it should be on job skills, reaction times, cognitive ability and so on. Other problems - alcohol, psychiatric, marital - are being missed while we're spending millions snooping around people's private lives."

Alcohol, for example, accounts for almost 15 million lost working days, and costs industry three times as much as drugs (some pounds 2.4bn per annum). Alcohol will be out of the bloodstream within 24 hours, Ecstasy and amphetamines within 48, and cocaine and opiates within 72 (canny employers tend to test on Monday mornings). But cannabis, depending as with all drugs upon the purity, strength, quantity, and the user's body weight, can stay in the body for up to 90 days. For that reason, alcohol and hard drugs rarely show up as much a cannabis, a drug more widely used and socially accepted than the others, and one whose effects wear off much more quickly than its trace.

The correlation between drug use and incompetence at work has also been questioned. The FSS says that drug use leads to "impaired judgement, lack of concentration and unpredictable behaviour ... increased absenteeism, more accidents, lower productivity and resulting damage to profit and corporate image". But Anna Bradley, executive director of the Institute for the Study of Drug Dependency, has a different opinion. "In most forms of work it [drug use] only becomes a problem for the employer when it has become a problem for the employee. The question that most employers need to ask themselves is not 'who is using drugs or alcohol?' but 'who has a problem?'"

Another concern is that in this country, there is as yet no regulation of the "medical services" which offer to screen employees, and unions suspect there are more than a few cowboy operations, unwittingly toying with people's careers. The selection process for candidates in random tests, the custody of samples, and the notification of testing times - none of these are subject to control. Oonagh Ryden, policy adviser to the IPD, agrees that "it is a worry that drug-testing agencies are unregulated, and that there are no codes of operation."

The bottom line remains that incompetence is of much more concern to employers than drug use: you're more likely to be rumbled for bad work than bad habits.