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Committee suggests employee drug tests

April 19, 2000|By BRENDAN KIRBY

Hagerstown business leaders who are pressing for more widespread use of drug testing in the work place fired every piece of ammunition they could muster during a forum Tuesday morning - law enforcement officers, politicians and even recovering drug addicts.

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The substance abuse forum at the Four Points Hotel in Hagerstown, sponsored by the Greater Hagerstown Committee, focused on the use of testing to combat illegal drug use.

Special Agent Dave Miller of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, praised the cooperation among police departments in Washington County.

He said three DEA agents, a Maryland State Police trooper, four Washington County sheriff's deputies and five Hagerstown City Police officers work out of the same office to fight the drug trade.

Miller said, however, that police officers, even in large numbers, cannot eradicate the blight of illegal drugs on their own.

"The base has to come from you all," Miller told the business executives gathered at the hotel. "We have to have your support."

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Other speakers echoed that thought, citing statistics showing some 85 percent of drug abusers hold down permanent jobs.

"Government can't do it all," said Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who gave the morning's keynote address.

The Greater Hagerstown Committee is conducting a survey of Washington County businesses to determine how many conduct drug testing on their employees.

The most recent statistics showed that fewer than 10 percent of businesses conducted drug testing in 1992 and 1993, said Art Callaham, executive director of the Greater Hagerstown Committee.

Callaham said the organization wants businesses to test potential employees to help police crack down on the drug problem.

In addition, he said the group plans a high-profile campaign in the county's schools warning students that drug use could hurt their chances of landing a good job.

Some civil libertarians question the use of drug tests, however.

Susan Goering, executive director of the Maryland affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, criticized drug testing as inaccurate and invasive. She said companies that want to ensure their workers can function on the job should test job performance.

"There's this myth that it helps," said Goering, who was not at Tuesday's forum. "There are all sorts of questions about morale. What does that say to the employees? There's a whole privacy issue."

Participants at the seminar defended both the legality and morality of testing employees for drugs.

"If a person doesn't want to take the test, it's because they can't pass the thing," said Washington County Circuit Judge Frederick C. Wright III.

Leroy Mell, lab director at Hagerstown Medical Laboratory Inc., said drug tests are highly accurate, registering positive results only when a certain level of drugs are measured in the body.

Mell said employers have the right to provide a safe working environment for their employees. He urged both drug tests for prospective employees and periodic tests for current workers.

"You really need to do pre-employment testing," he said. "If you're really interested in getting rid of druggies in your employment, then random testing is a good way to do that."

Tony Dahbura, corporate vice president of Hub Labels in Hagerstown, questioned whether drug testing could cost companies workers in a tight job market if some companies test while others do not.

But Dahbura said in an interview that his company is committed to a drug-free work environment. He said Hub Labels has long used drug testing for job candidates and recently began random tests of current employees as well.

"We've had our head in the sand. We thought (with) pre-employment screening everybody in the building must be clean," he said.

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