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The NY Times’ Hypocritical Employee Drug Tests, Like Marijuana Prohibition, Need to End

The following article first appeared on Substance.com


Unless you’ve been in hiding, you’ll know that the New York Times made history last Sunday, July 27, when it launched a series of editorials calling for an end to marijuana prohibition. The first piece, “Repeal Prohibition, Again,” was a complete reversal of the Grey Lady’s hitherto cautious—some would say conservative—position on the drug war:

“It took 13 years for the United States to come to its senses and end Prohibition, 13 years in which people kept drinking, otherwise law-abiding citizens became criminals and crime syndicates arose and flourished. It has been more than 40 years since Congress passed the current ban on marijuana, inflicting great harm on society just to prohibit a substance far less dangerous than alcohol. The federal government should repeal the ban on marijuana.”

This will likely go down as a watershed moment in the War on Drugs. As Tony Newman of the Drug Policy Alliance put it in his piece over at the Huffington Post, “The Times‘ editorial has the feel of legendary CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite coming out against the Vietnam War….In previous decades, the Times did as much as any other media outlet to legitimize drug war hysteria and its disastrous policies.”

This stance by the “paper of record” has already provoked a predictably limp retort from the White House, trotting out distortions and half-truths that have been stock-in-trade for those who willfully reside on the wrong side of history on this issue: drugged driving;addiction; brain damage; think of the children! “The [Times] editorial ignores the science,” claims the White House website. In fact, one of the Times’ follow-up pieces explains conclusively why marijuana legalization is consistent with the best scientific evidence we have.

Public opinion, too, solidly backs the Grey Lady’s new position. Polled by everyone from Gallup to bastions of the right like Bill O’Reilly, most people in the US want marijuana prohibition to end. Increasingly the Kevin Sabets of this world look like modern-day King Canutes, waist deep in water, fruitlessly yelling at the tide to turn back.

So why then, given their sensible, credible and popular stance on this issue, do the powers-that-be at the New York Times still insist on drug testing their own new employees?

That’s what Huffington Post media reporter Michael Calderone asked bright and early on Sunday morning, even as the Times’ estimated 2 million readers were still taking in its new pro-legalization position. When asked to comment, the Grey Lady’s response was decidedly frosty. A spokesperson told HuffPo, “Our corporate policy on this issue reflects current law. We aren’t going to get into details beyond that.”

This apparent contradiction was seized upon by the owners of Weedmaps, a website that has been described as “the Yelp of dope.” Founded in 2008, the Newport Beach-based “legal dispensary finder” has grown into a powerful entity since marijuana prohibition started crumbling from state to state. Weedmaps’ revenues are currently projected at $30 million per year, and they’ve recently beenspending some of that cash to push for legal marijuana in New York.

On July 29, the company launched a petition at Change.org calling out Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger for his perceived hypocrisy. “To stir the pot [!] and hopefully influence the Times to reevaluate its drug testing stance, Weedmaps has launched a petition calling for the Times to stop testing its employees for THC,” wrote Barry Bard at Marijuana.com, Weedmaps’ news site. At press time, the petition had some 1,750 supporters, 750 short of its 2,500 target.

As Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent Jordan Weissmann pointed out, the Times’ response that their corporate policy reflects current law is “complete nonsense.” According to the Department of Labor’s website: “The majority of employers across the United States are NOT required to drug test and many state and local governments have statutes that limit or prohibit workplace testing, unless required by state or Federal regulations for certain jobs. Also, drug testing is NOT required under the Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988.”

“Respectfully, that’s a highly nonsensical explanation of why the Times is interested in the content of its employees’ urine,” agrees Tom Angell of Marijuana Majority. “Yes, marijuana is still illegal in New York and federally, but there’s absolutely no law on the books that mandates newspapers drug test their journalists before they’re allowed to byline articles. Let’s be clear: The decision about whether or not to continue these senseless tests rest solely with the publisher of the Times, and no one else. If he thinks it’s wrong to discriminate against people for using marijuana, and he does, then he should act to make sure the company he owns stops discriminating against people who use marijuana.”

Yet it would not be surprising if Sulzberger is a bit bitter about this turn of events. After taking this bold political step, is being singled out for hypocrisy the thanks he gets from marijuana advocates? For the Times is no outlier in the media industry when it comes to asking a new employee to pee before entering. According to Gawker.com, other major news companies that require a clean test for employment include the Washington Post Company, the McClatchy Company (Miami Herald, Sacramento Bee, Kansas City Star), the Hearst Corporation (Esquire, Elle, Houston Chronicle, San Francisco Chronicle), the Tribune Company (Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun) and Gannett Communications (USA Today). (Among newspapers and wire services that give new hires a pass are the AP, Reuters, Bloomberg, the Guardian and the Times’ local competitor, the Wall Street Journal.)

Why do so many companies, far beyond the media world, persist with drug testing? Part of the answer is that despite not being required by law, testing has become big business. When President Obama called for “drug-free workplaces” in his 2012 Drug Control Policy report, he claimed it was “beneficial for our labor force, employers, families and communities in general.” This declaration gave fangs to the drug testing industry, which has been on the rampage in recent years, aggressively expanding its reach via a multimillion dollar lobbying effort.

As far back as 1982, Robert DuPont, a former director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse and former White House drug czar, founded Bensinger, DuPont & Associates to ensure he got his slice of those lucrative drug-testing profits. The gold rush had officially begun. And by 2012 one outfit called “The Drug Abuse Testing Coalition” had spent an incredible $90,000 on “Medicare reimbursement codes and payment rates for qualitative drug screening.”

With money to spend on lobbying, such groups have the power to make policy and change laws. They were behind the Drug Testing Integrity Act of 2008, which successfully outlawed “cleansing products” that promised to help customers pass a drug test. Next up was the push to drug-test people seeking public assistance: Thanks to the drug testing industry, Florida has spent almost $120,000 testing the urine of welfare applicants. Ironically, as The New York Times pointed out, this is $45,780 less than they would have spent if they’d simply given welfare to the 108 applicants who tested positive for drugs and were refused assistance. But similar measures have still been proposed in at least half the US states.

Still, success or failure isn’t really the point: Tellingly, urine testing has in Florida earned the nickname “liquid gold.” Reports of corruption and kickbacks plague the industry. In 2012 a $20 million settlement was paid out by the Massachusetts drug test laboratory Calloway Industries for a kickback scheme described by one commentator as “the latest chapter in an industry bedeviled by criminal investigations, lawsuits, finger pointing and ruthless competition.” The cash was handed over to settle charges that the company defrauded Medicaid with the help of sham companies, fake doctor signatures and excessive urine tests for drug addicts.

But even if the business itself were “clean,” that wouldn’t make the Times’ policy justifiable.

“No one is saying that employers should be forced to deal with workers who are high on the job,” says Marijuana Majority’s Tom Angell. “But these outdated drug testing programs have absolutely nothing to do with determining workplace impairment and have everything to do with punishing employees for what they do on their own time, since marijuana can stay in someone’s system for weeks after one use.”

Whether the Times will change its policy remains to be seen, although some more positive noises on the day after the HuffPo attack suggest that it might: “Whether we’re going to continue testing for marijuana or not, I don’t know,” said editorial page editor Andy Rosenthal on MSNBC. “If they ask me, I’ll say stop.”

This would be welcome news to the likes of Aaron Houston, strategist for Ghost Group/Weedmaps, which has no doubt seen a spike in its traffic since launching the petition. “The Times’ current drug testing policy conundrum highlights the challenge facing our society as states legalize marijuana,“ he says. “People may no longer go to jail for marijuana under the new laws, but they still face an array of other life-changing consequences for using marijuana that they wouldn’t face for using alcohol or prescription drugs, including loss of a job, voting rights, housing and access to education, to name a few. The Times should change its drug testing policy to reflect its position ending marijuana prohibition.”

But even before we get to all these life-ruining, unjust consequences of testing, the very idea of powerful people feeling entitled to examine the contents of less powerful people’s bodies as a way of making decisions about their careers and lives is repulsive. As William Burroughs—a man who was often ahead of his time—wrote in his essay “Just Say No To Drug Hysteria”:

“Urine tests! Our pioneer ancestors would piss in their graves at the thought of urine tests to decide whether a man is competent to do his job. The measure of competence is performance. When told that General Grant was a heavy drinker, Lincoln said: ‘Find out what brand of whiskey he drinks, and distribute it to my other generals.’”

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