Doctor and activist

Drug Testing and Strip Searching 7/11/19

7 November 2019

I have some experience in this area, though I would not seek to overstate it.

In 1985 I won a public service fellowship to look at workplace absence and I looked at the evidence of whether drug testing in the workplace worked. The main place it was suggested was at pre-employment medicals. The idea was that if you tested them and they were OK, they could have the job. It was a pretty silly idea as only a really serious addict would come to job medical interview with drugs on board so the pick up rate was low, the costs high, and the impression on the workers quite negative.

Later in my OHS job a worker was sent in for a medical as he was said to be using hard drugs in the portable toilet (thunderbox). He was taunting and arrogant, saying that I could not prove anything, and could not do anything as he would not give permission for the test. He was right of course, but he soon proved his accusers right as well by falling out the door of the thunderbox with a needle stuck in his arm.

When I worked in private OHS, the NSW State government saved money by sending people on parole to be drug urine tested on Medicare by local GPs. I was stuck with it in our practice which was one of the few that still agreed to do the testing. A man came in, angry and abusive, demanding immediate service, which he was granted to stop him terrorising the waiting room. He brought in a jar of very cold urine for testing. I said that I wanted a fresh specimen, gave him a jar and pointed to the toilet, ten paces away. He left to ‘get a new specimen’ and came back some time later. I said that I wanted to see him pass it, so he pulled his undies down saying, ‘There it is, are you happy now?’ No I wasn’t, as he had another small vial of urine in his hand as he held his undies. ‘You are a hard bastard’, he said as he eventually passed the urine, which unsurprisingly showed he was still using narcotics. The Parole people were pleased. They said, ‘We knew he was using but could not get a GP to get us a specimen’. I was not surprised that GPs were reluctant. At $15.20 for a Medicare visit that involved a terrified waiting room, half an hour of time, a threat to have your head punched in and the disruption of a whole afternoon for a whole medial practice, I told them that we were not going to continue testing either. Presumably he went back to gaol, and one might wonder how much good that did.

My next encounter was a female friend who had been very traumatised by a previous serious rape attempt that she had fought off. She was going through Central Station on her way to work, when a sniffer dog made the Police insist on searching her bag and ‘patting her down’. She had an empty plastic bag in her handbag that she had had a small amount of marijuana in some weeks before. But she was very traumatised by the experience because of the memories that were stirred and by the idea that she could not even walk around without people assuming that they had the right to touch her body.

The NSW Government will not allow pill testing at concerts, but wants to try to stop the drugs entering. Presumably there is a risk that younger people will bring them in if they are exempt from searches. Where will this end? Body cavity searches? MRIs outside concerts?

Prohibition will generally not work in the workplace, let alone the rock concerts. We need harm minimisation policies. This is not easy and it is not perfect, but it is better than prohibition.

Here is the NSW story in the NY Times, presumably with the unstated subheading, ‘Look what these mad Australians are doing now.’

Arthur Chesterfield-Evans

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