Random testing puts drug users' jobs on the line

Cleaning up: Police forces and other 'safety sensitive' professions are following industry's lead, reports Julian Kossoff
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The Independent Online
THE DECISION by Merseyside Police to test its employees for drugs is set to be adopted by all Britain's emergency services.

Keith Hellawell, the Government's drug "tsar" believes that the fire, ambulance and motorway rescue services are all "safety sensitive" occupations that should introduce drug-testing immediately.

Indeed, random drug-testing of all public employees is now being openly discussed in government circles. If imposed it would affect the huge sections of the population who are casual drug users.

Figures published last week by the Institute of Personnel and Development (IPD), showed that up to 18 per cent of the nation's workforce may be taking drugs at any one time - a 3 per cent increase since 1996. And with one third of under-21s admitting to having smoked cannabis, an entire generation is effectively growing-up "doing" drugs.

But Liverpool's police chiefs are determined to prevent the drugs-inspired lifestyle from spreading in the ranks.

As a result, all new recruits to the Merseyside force will have to take comprehensive drugs tests. Officers working in sensitive positions, such as those in armed response vehicles, will also have to provide a sample for screening.

A smaller-scale scheme run by Grampian Police in north-east Scotland has already proved successful. There have only been "a very few" positive tests since testing was introduced 18 months ago.

According to anti-drugs campaigners, testing at work is one of the most effective weapons against narcotic abuse. They believe the threat of losing a job could ultimately be the key to controlling society's growing narcotics problem.

Drug-screening began to spread from the sporting arena at the beginning of the decade. In 1992, British Rail introduced a strict drink and drug- testing regime for 50,000 employees with operational or safety responsibilities. Its decision followed the 1991 Cannon Street rail crash, in which two people were killed and drug traces were found in the blood of a train driver involved.

Today the practice is well established. Hundreds of thousands of people already face the prospect of having to provide a sample for the management's inspection.

British arms of big US corporations, such as Texaco, have been at the forefront of drug-testing, importing it from home where a third of the top 500 corporations screen their workers.

City firms are increasingly introducing random drugs tests. Stories of traders wired on cocaine whilst doing deals are legion in the wine bars of the capital's financial district.

Recently, sniffer dogs were paraded on the floor of London's International Petroleum Exchange in a demonstration of the oil industry's combative approach to drug-taking among its employees.

Earlier this year one company ordered its dealers, floor traders and other workers to undergo random screening. Garban Equities warned staff they could face disciplinary action if they did not provide urine samples to be checked for narcotics including heroin, cocaine, amphetamines and cannabis.

Drug-testing has also filtered into other parts of society. Public-school pupils can now be tested if a teacher thinks they are exhibiting signs of drug abuse. Meanwhile, the screening of prisoners, and the loss of remission as a punishment for those who test positive, is one of the most controversial applications of random drugs-testing.

Reformers say prison drug-users were turning from the smoking of cannabis to taking heroin because the latter left the blood in a matter of days. Cannabis, which stays in the system for three weeks afterwards, was more easily detected

London Underground has been testing drivers, track workers and people in "safety critical" roles since the early Nineties. Its figures for 1996 show that 35 people or 1.6 per cent of those tested, failed, and were immediately sacked. The RMT union has no objection to random drug-testing, although it has received complaints about managers using the test as a disciplinary weapon, and picking on ethnic minorities.

Liberty's John Wadham argues that if non-safety sensitive staff engage in "drug and alcohol consumption in leisure time [which] has no effect on performance, it is none of the employer's business". Lawyers specialising in employment law also believe that forcing someone to take a drug test could be considered assault.

And perfectly innocent substances can produce false results. One London Underground worker was suspended after being randomly tested and found to have traces of a drug in his sample. It subsequently turned out that the trace came from the poppy seeds on his lunchtime roll.