Congress O.K.’s Drug-Testing The Unemployed: Will It Fight Addiction?

Last week, in a deal to maintain the payroll tax cut and extended unemployment benefits, Congress passed a law that allows states to drug-test people seeking unemployment benefits, if they were fired from their last job for drugs, and anyone seeking jobs that would ordinarily require a drug test.

Republicans initially wanted to drug-test all people applying for unemployment benefits — a measure Democrats opposed. It’s not clear how many states will start testing under the new compromise law, or what percentage of the unemployed will end up having to pee in cups, but if the intent of the policy is to reduce addiction rates, the research suggests it isn’t going to work. In fact, the new law might even increase certain types of drug use.

It is true that there is a correlation between unemployment and substance use disorders. But that correlation is complicated: although addiction rates among the unemployed are nearly double those for people with jobs, no one knows what proportion of this group was fired due to pre-existing addiction-related issues and what percent became addicted because they lost their jobs and began self-medicating to fill up their time or overcome feelings of uselessness.

What’s clear is that denying people benefits on the basis of a single positive drug test doesn’t treat addiction nor does it even determine whether treatment is necessary. In fact, because marijuana can stay in the system for weeks while other drugs are typically gone within days, urine testing will tend to selectively pick up those taking a drug with the lowest rates of addiction.

Moreover, knowing that they will be tested, drug users often shift to drugs that leave the body quickly — meaning that testing can push them toward more addictive and harmful drugs. That may include the use of now-banned synthetic marijuana drugs, such as Spice or K2, for example, which have never been tested on humans and which may actually be more harmful than marijuana.

Research also shows that employment is strongly linked with recovery from addiction, so making it harder for the unemployed to get back on their feet while seeking jobs isn’t likely to help. Indeed, many opponents of programs that “enable” addicts believe that by providing support to drug users before they quit will prevent them from hitting bottom, which in theory would trigger recovery. But research doesn’t support this idea.

For example, in a 2007 study that looked at 200 addicted veterans who sought treatment, researchers found that the more anger, anxiety and depression the drug users felt, the less likely they were to be committed to recovery, which directly predicts successful treatment. Other research has found that making drug use safer — by providing clean needles or housing that doesn’t require abstinence — actually encourages people to cut down or quit entirely, rather than worsening addiction.

If we want to fight addiction in a time of limited resources, rather than drug-testing the unemployed, we should fund more evidence-based addiction treatments and job-training programs. Otherwise, all we’re doing is stigmatizing those who are already down and subsidizing the drug-testing industry — just another form of corporate welfare.

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