When a Utah company initiated a pre-employment drug screening program, a disturbing 55 percent of the job applicants tested positive for narcotics use.

A year later, 35 percent of the applicants tested positive."They're now below 5 percent. The quality of their employees is higher. Word has got out. People with drug problems don't apply there," said Richard A. Etter, technical coordinator of the Substance Analysis & Management division of Associated Regional and University Pathologists.

For civil libertarians, drug testing flies in the face of an individual's right to privacy. Others fear retribution if the tests show a false positive.

But for business, the issue is both a safety and financial concern. The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates drug usage costs American companies between $50 billion and $150 billion annually.

Etter said narcotics users are generally less productive employees, take more sick days, endanger safety records and increase the use of medical benefits.

The need for drug testing is evident, he said. If properly implemented, such programs can protect employers who are legally obligated to provide a safe workplace and protect employees' privacy.

"A carefully designed, legally defensible employee drug testing program can reduce drug use in the workplace," Etter said. "The U.S. military experienced an 80 percent decline in drug use worldwide after initiating a program of high standards, education and random testing."

The Utah lab is one of only 26 laboratories certified by the National Institute of Drug Abuse and is accredited by the College of American Pathology to perform drug tests for the federal government and industries or businesses regulated by the federal government agencies such as the Department of Transportation or the Department of Energy.

The federal tests screens for five narcotics: marijuana, cocaine, opiates, phencyclidine hydrochloride (a powerful psychedelic drug commonly called PCP) and amphetamines. Etter said about 5.5 percent of the federal employees screened test positive, most often for marijuana and cocaine use.

The private sector, which may screen as many as dozen different drugs, including alcohol, has a 11 percent positive rate.

The tests, Etter said, are accurate. "With the present technology, we can be 100 percent accurate," he said. He likens the accuracy of the drug tests to isolating a single second in 31.8 years or 1 inch in 15,783 miles.

If the tests results are inaccurate, the lab loses its NIDA certification. "It's a very difficult certification to get. Eighty percent that applied for that certification, failed to meet the process," he said.

NIDA standards are so exacting that inspectors periodically run blind samples through certified labs that are spiked with narcotics or are known to be clean to ascertain the laboratories reproduce their findings.

The labs also must undergo proficiency tests, testing urines tainted with known substances. The technicians must isolate the substance within "billionths of a gram."

The tests have been so perfected it is virtually impossible for someone to buy "clean" urine and present it as their own. Each collection container is equipped with a heat-sensitive strip that records the temperature of the sample when it is collected.

Some people have poured Mountain Dew into sample containers attempting to dupe technicians. If tests indicate the substance is not urine, testers call it an invalid test.

Etter, who spent the past 18 years running substance abuse treatment centers and psychiatric hospitals, said he believes employer-required drug testing programs can have positive results for employees and employers.

"Companies are able to ferret out those people (drug users) and get them some help or get them out of the company," he said.

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(Additional information)

Guidelines for drug-screening programs

Any employer-required program for the screening of employees and prospective employees for drugs should include the following considerations:

1. Company policy and procedure should be in written form and applied impartially.

2. Any requirement for drug screening should be based on reasonable business necessity.

3. Affected employees should be notified in advance about the company's policy on drug screening.

4. If special safety or security needs justify testing for drugs on an unannounced basis, employees should be notified in advance such testing is conducted from time to time.

5. Written consent for screening and communication of results to the employer should be obtained from each individual prior to screening.

6. Collection, transportation and analysis of specimens should meet high legal, technical and ethical requirements.

7. A qualified physician should evaluate positive results prior to a report being made to the employer.

8. The affected employee or applicant should be advised of the positive test results by the physician and have an opportunity to explain or discuss the results before the information is reported to the employer.

9. The applicant or employee who based on test results may have a drug abuse problem should be advised about the availability of appropriate treatment resources.

10. Any report to the employer should include only the information needed for work placement purposes or as required by regulation.