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Operation Golden Flow: America’s Urine is Liquid Gold for Drug War Profiteers

Urine Collection Bottles Sit Empty in a Blue Receptical
Photo by Daniel Lobo


Operation Golden Flow: America’s Urine is Liquid Gold for Drug War Profiteers

It looks harmless enough, faint yellow, warm and contained in a plastic cup, but urine drug testing analysis shatters the lives of countless responsible cannabis users each day. It could be the person struggling to shake an opioid dependency, the meticulous worker who enjoys a toke after hours to relax or the ambitious college graduate seeking their first job – many Americans fall victim to the invasive practice of drug testing.

“It’s always amazing to me how even leaders of the movement surrender on this,” California NORML Director Dale Gieringer said, noting those who say people in fields such as air traffic controllers should be tested via urine analysis. “Maybe [air traffic controllers] would do better smoking pot.”

Gieringer is the author of the “California NORML Guide to Drug Testing,” a booklet dedicated to arming cannabis users with the knowledge to protect themselves against workforce discrimination. He explains that air traffic controllers who utilize cannabis after hours might be less likely to turn to more dangerous substances such as alcohol or synthetic marijuana. That’s just a few of the many faults Gieringer says he finds in the practice of drug testing, a system that fails to measure impairment and remains an insidious intrusion on personal privacy and freedom.

Urine testing in America has its origins in the military’s 1971 Operation Golden Flow, a drug test aimed at finding heroin users among returning Vietnam veterans. In 1986 President Ronald Regan signed an executive order requiring federal agencies to institute urine analysis to promote “drug-free” workplaces. A train accident that followed in 1987, in which both the engineer and conductor tested positive for marijuana, resulted in Congress passing a law imposing random drug testing on all federal transportation workers. While cannabis’ role in the accident remained unclear – an official investigation found glaring safety lapses and didn’t recommend drug testing in its recommendation – the precedent had been set. The Drug Free Workplace Act was established for federal workers and select federal contractors in 1988.

The ACLU reports that despite the fact that random substance testing “is often unrelated to the tasks required to do the job, produces inaccurate results, and remains unproven as a means of stopping drug use,” millions of Americans who are not suspected of drug use are tested each year. Last year 6.1 million drug screenings took place within the Department of Transportation alone.

“Employers should not have the right to require employees to prove their innocence by taking a drug test without any evidence that they are using drugs,” the organization states on its website.

In Key West, a federal judge agreed, ruling that a woman who had refused to take a drug test to secure a city job was within her Fourth Amendment rights. It appears some high-ranking government officials also agree. FBI Director James Comey made headlines with his remark in the Wall Street Journal stating that drug testing was hindering his ability to fight cyber-crime.

“I have to hire a great work force to compete with those cyber criminals and some of those kids want to smoke weed on the way to the interview,” he said.

The most pervasive form of drug testing is urine analysis, a test that’s more sensitive to cannabis than other far more dangerous drugs including prescription narcotics. Urine testing for cannabis is also unreliable in showing impairment because it tests for substances present in cannabis that can remain in one’s system far after any psychoactive affects from marijuana have dissipated. This was the case with a medical marijuana user in Colorado, Brandon Coates, who took his lawsuit stating he had been unjustly fired for using cannabis after-hours all the way to the state’s supreme court.

Drug testing is a multi-billion dollar industry. There is no comprehensive federal law dictating drug testing in the private sector, leaving employers with the power to mandate the invasive procedure at random. On an episode of “All Things Considered” focused on the Colorado case, NPR reported that more than one-third of private employers in the U.S. have drug-testing policies.

“We’re not pushing for use at work,” Coates’ attorney, Michael Evans told NPR. “We’re pushing for, if you’re in the privacy of your own home, you’re registered with the state and abiding by the constitutional amendment, is that an okay reason for your employer to fire you?”

Gieringer points out that the federal government has never been able to prove that drug testing increases workplace safety or makes employees less prone to absenteeism and accidents. Drugs in the nation remain illegal unless they undergo rigorous testing by the FDA.

“There has never been any such study in drug testing that shows it is effective in preserving workplace safety and work place productivity,” he says.

(Originally published in issue 13 of Cannabis Now.)

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