Pubdate: Wed, 26 Feb 2014
Source: Times, The (Gainesville, GA)
Copyright: 2014 Gainesville Times
Author: Joshua Silavent
Bookmark: (Drug Testing)


Gainesville will implement a zero-tolerance drug-testing policy 
beginning Saturday for public safety workers, with termination of 
employment the penalty for a single failed test.

But substance abuse specialists have concerns about how effective the 
policy will be in curbing drug addiction and whether firing workers 
will only lead to further abuse.

The city currently administers random drug tests for transit workers 
and other jobs that require a commercial driver's license. The new 
policy would be extended to include testing of police officers, 
firefighters, plant and equipment operators, lifeguards and other 
employees who operate city vehicles.

The city has conducted training for its workforce about how the new 
policy will be implemented, and offered a "grace period" since the 
policy's adoption at the beginning of the year to allow employees an 
opportunity to come forward and seek treatment for their drug use.

City officials said the new policy was driven by the need to ensure a 
safe workplace environment. Also, if accidents on the job were caused 
by illegal drug use, the city could be held liable for resulting 
injuries or fatalities.

"When you're working for the city, we expect our employees to perform 
their jobs in a safe manner," Councilman George Wangemann said. "And 
if you're on drugs, at best, it's questionable as to whether you can 
operate equipment or drive a vehicle ..."

Some drug policy experts, however, have questioned whether the 
zero-tolerance policy is too strict and outdated when the nation's 
war on drugs is seen, more than ever, as a failure. They say firing 
an employee could do irreparable harm to that individual's career. 
Such a prospect also could lead to continued to drug use.

Jeremy Sharp, a student at the University of North Georgia who 
founded the school's Students for Sensible Drug Policy chapter, said 
he has reservations about how the policy will be implemented.

"To fire an individual for one failed drug screen is kind of a slap 
in the face," he said, adding that not granting any leniency could 
mean the city loses a valuable and knowledgeable employee with years 
of service and experience who may have slipped up only once or twice.

Sharp said he got involved in drug policy issues after having several 
friends overdose. He is currently helping to push a bill through the 
Georgia General Assembly - where he has testified before legislators 
about a number of drug policy issues - that would encourage people at 
the scene of a drug overdose to call 911 without fear of prosecution 
for simple drug possession charges.

"We have a lot of people that are getting caught up in a system that 
has a lot of kinks in it," Sharp said. "People are treated like 
criminals when drug addiction should be treated as a health issue. A 
lot of times the worst thing that happens to an individual is going 
to jail and the criminal record that comes with it."

Of course, ensuring a safe workplace is paramount in any industry, 
and drug-induced impairment threatens the safety and health of not 
just users, but their colleagues and the people they serve.

"I think (the new policy) will hopefully motivate people that do have 
a problem to either stop using or seek help on their own," said 
Lauren Markovich, prevention coordinator with the Drug Free Coalition 
of Hall County.

But while the new policy tests for illicit drug use like marijuana, 
cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin, several commonly used drugs will 
go undetected - namely alcohol and prescription drugs. And the 
consequences could be deadly.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, alcohol use costs 
the country an estimated $235 billion annually in health care 
spending, crime intervention and lost work productivity. That figure 
is higher than the cost of tobacco or illicit drug use.

"Of course, it's definitely a concern," Markovich said. "Alcoholism 
is very prevalent."

The danger of alcohol abuse cannot be overstated. The Centers for 
Disease Control and Prevention reports more than 10,000 people were 
killed in drunken-driving crashes in 2010, accounting for nearly 
one-third of all traffic-related deaths in the nation.

But the city has no protocol in place for addressing alcoholism. Nor 
does it have a viable testing program to uncover prescription drug 
abuse, which has become an "epidemic," according to the CDC.

"The prevalence of substance abuse is certainly a public health 
issue, especially prescription drug abuse," Markovich said.

More than 2.4 million Americans begin using prescription pain 
relievers for nonmedical purposes - that is, to get high - every 
year. This results in more than 17,000 overdoses annually and opioid 
analgesic pain pills are responsible for more poisoning deaths than 
any other drug, including heroin and cocaine, according to the 
National Center for Health Statistics.

Moreover, the Drug Free Coalition of Hall County reports 24 people in 
the county died from overdoses related to prescription drug use in 2010.

"Certainly there are some drugs (testing) won't detect," Wangemann 
said. "That would be a concern of mine."

The new policy will give workers a 60-day notice prior to any test, 
presenting another potential gap in the city's efforts to address 
drug use among its employees.

"I do strongly believe there are ways around (drug testing)," 
Markovich said. "I think there's still going to be people who slip 
through the cracks."

But having workers find ways to get clean before a drug test, only to 
resume using afterward, might not be the only consequence of the new 
policy, particularly as it relates to marijuana - the most commonly 
used illicit substance in the world. The drug is so common, in fact, 
that Colorado and Washington state have decided to tax and regulate 
its recreational use rather than spend tens of millions of dollars 
fighting its distribution.

"Generally, what happens when you introduce drug screening into a 
workplace ... is it doesn't necessarily curb marijuana usage," Sharp 
said, adding that people turn to harder drugs, like cocaine, heroin 
or prescription drugs, that wash out of their system quicker and 
allow them to beat a test. "The harder drugs are what's killing people."

If an employee does lose his or her job over a failed test, Markovich 
said she hopes the city will be there to support them rather than 
washing their hands of the situation.

"I definitely think that if an employee were to be terminated for 
drug abuse, I think that (the city) needs to provide them with 
treatment - even if they are being fired," she added. "You can't just 
throw them out on the road ..."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom