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February 23rd, 2003:

Allison’s floods could have been worse

Not sure how useful this actually is, but this Chron article discusses some alternate scenarios to Tropical Storm Allison, which flooded out most of Houston in 2001. Apparently, we got off lighter than we had to, since the areas that received the most rain were less populated than some others, and the nearest bayous were best equipped to take it. Hard to say if there are any lessons to learn from this, since TS Allison was such a freak occurrance, but it’s interesting reading nonetheless.

The business of beating drug tests

It’s nice to know that in these tough economic times that there are still growth industries. One of them is the beat-the-drug-test business, as a simple Google search would seem to indicate. This article is about the continuous arms race between drug testing companies and companies that try to neuter them, but what I want to talk about is here at the end:

Workplace drug testing pays, supporters say. A study by the Office of National Drug Control Policy estimated that the nation lost $110.5 billion in productivity in 2000 because of drug use, and the Labor Department estimates that 6.5 percent of full-time and 8.6 percent of part-time workers are illicit drug users. Marijuana is the most frequently detected drug, showing up in about 60 percent of the positive tests, followed by cocaine. Critics of the tests say that they pick up more marijuana users because the drug stays in the body longer.

That $110.5 billion figure sure sounds impressive, but I have several questions. How exactly is productivity being measured? What assumptions are being made about weekend drug users, who may show up for work on Monday clean and sober and yet test positively for various toxins? Is alcohol considered a drug for these purposes? What would the costs be of firing all of the marijuana users in the workplace and replacing them with people who are currently unemployed (assuming there are enough non-drug users among the unemployed to do so)? Do you think that a government agency whose existence would be made superfluous by a deemphasis on the perils of drug use might possibly be tempted to make the problem appear as bad as it could? I’m just asking.

Critics fault widespread drug testing as an unnecessary invasion of privacy. While it makes sense to test people in safety-sensitive jobs for drug usage, many of the tests contribute little to improving either workplace safety or productivity, said Graham Boyd, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Drug Policy Litigation Project. Employers test anyway, he said, in an effort to reduce their workers’ compensation and insurance costs.

“The fact that so many people are doing so much to subvert the system” suggests widespread disdain, he said. “You don’t see that with laws about embezzlement because there is a shared moral code that embezzlement is bad. If you don’t buy into that, you really are an outsider.”

One can, of course, make a similar argument about traffic laws. I’m sure I’m not the only person to notice that plenty of people still get pulled over for speeding even after the limit went up on most freeways. That doesn’t mean that traffic laws are bad or misguided. I’d go a step further, though, and note that I have a lot less sympathy for people who get caught speeding in a 70 MPH zone than I do for people who get caught in a 55 MPH zone. Perhaps if the business of drug testing were more about catching the flagrant violators than foisting suspicion on all of us, I’d feel the same way about it.