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A New Test

​In 1987, my high school debate team spent months arguing about drug and alcohol testing. We were consumed with one question: was drug testing an unacceptable invasion of privacy or an urgent necessity? We squared off as individuals, using the Lincoln-Douglas format to hammer home both the gross injustice of and the undeniable need for drug testing. We teamed up to conduct cross-examinations of each other, demanding that the audience weigh the horrors of invasive testing run amok versus impaired workers piloting airplanes.

Though extreme, the discussion was far from abstract. In 1986, the Reagan administration suggested across-the-board workplace drug testing as part of its War on Drugs. In 1988, an executive order required companies with federal contracts exceeding $25,000 to implement a drug-testing program. Such mandates were expanded when, in 1991, transit workers in safety-sensitive positions were required to undergo drug testing as well. The private sector soon followed suit. Exact numbers are hard to come by, but studies indicate that by the mid-1990s between 62 and 81 percent of private employers in the United States drug tested their employees.

The rest of the world takes a different approach to drug testing. In 2013, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that random alcohol testing of employees in safety-sensitive positions was an invasion of privacy and an overreach on the part of management. In some European Union countries, such as The Netherlands, any drug testing of employees at all is illegal. In others, such as the United Kingdom and Germany, drug testing is permitted, but must be germane to the employment position in question. In China and India, as well as in many Latin American countries, drug testing is the not the norm because fewer substances are deemed illegal than in the United States.

Where there's smoke, there's fire, and that smoke is wafting into the United States. In recent years, popular mandates legalizing medical marijuana in many states immediately ran afoul of federal laws declaring that drug illegal. Now that four states—Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington— plus the District of Columbia have decriminalized recreational marijuana use, employers will be forced to rethink drug testing programs, and the U.S. judicial system will certainly revisit the issue. This makes the inclusion of background screening, including drug and alcohol testing, a particularly relevant entry into this month's "60 Years, 60 Milestones."

Background screening is only one of the privacy-related topics addressed in this month's milestones. Other issues rounding out the list include the privacy of personal information, the rise of social media and privacy concerns, the ubiquity of surveillance in public areas, and the corporate protection of privacy in the form of trade secrets. As this list indicates, the War on Drugs may be waning—but the war on privacy is just warming up.