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Gainesville drug testing policy draws scrutiny
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Gainesville will implement a zero-tolerance drug-testing policy beginning Saturday for public safety workers, with termination of employment the penalty for a single failed test.

But substance abuse specialists have concerns about how effective the policy will be in curbing drug addiction and whether firing workers will only lead to further abuse.

The city currently administers random drug tests for transit workers and other jobs that require a commercial driver’s license. The new policy would be extended to include testing of police officers, firefighters, plant and equipment operators, lifeguards and other employees who operate city vehicles.

The city has conducted training for its workforce about how the new policy will be implemented, and offered a “grace period” since the policy’s adoption at the beginning of the year to allow employees an opportunity to come forward and seek treatment for their drug use.

City officials said the new policy was driven by the need to ensure a safe workplace environment. Also, if accidents on the job were caused by illegal drug use, the city could be held liable for resulting injuries or fatalities.

“When you’re working for the city, we expect our employees to perform their jobs in a safe manner,” Councilman George Wangemann said. “And if you’re on drugs, at best, it’s questionable as to whether you can operate equipment or drive a vehicle ...”

Some drug policy experts, however, have questioned whether the zero-tolerance policy is too strict and outdated when the nation’s war on drugs is seen, more than ever, as a failure. They say firing an employee could do irreparable harm to that individual’s career. Such a prospect also could lead to continued to drug use.

Jeremy Sharp, a student at the University of North Georgia who founded the school’s Students for Sensible Drug Policy chapter, said he has reservations about how the policy will be implemented.

“To fire an individual for one failed drug screen is kind of a slap in the face,” he said, adding that not granting any leniency could mean the city loses a valuable and knowledgeable employee with years of service and experience who may have slipped up only once or twice.

Sharp said he got involved in drug policy issues after having several friends overdose. He is currently helping to push a bill through the Georgia General Assembly — where he has testified before legislators about a number of drug policy issues — that would encourage people at the scene of a drug overdose to call 911 without fear of prosecution for simple drug possession charges.

“We have a lot of people that are getting caught up in a system that has a lot of kinks in it,” Sharp said. “People are treated like criminals when drug addiction should be treated as a health issue. A lot of times the worst thing that happens to an individual is going to jail and the criminal record that comes with it.”

Of course, ensuring a safe workplace is paramount in any industry, and drug-induced impairment threatens the safety and health of not just users, but their colleagues and the people they serve.

“I think (the new policy) will hopefully motivate people that do have a problem to either stop using or seek help on their own,” said Lauren Markovich, prevention coordinator with the Drug Free Coalition of Hall County.

But while the new policy tests for illicit drug use like marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin, several commonly used drugs will go undetected — namely alcohol and prescription drugs. And the consequences could be deadly.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, alcohol use costs the country an estimated $235 billion annually in health care spending, crime intervention and lost work productivity. That figure is higher than the cost of tobacco or illicit drug use.

“Of course, it’s definitely a concern,” Markovich said. “Alcoholism is very prevalent.”

The danger of alcohol abuse cannot be overstated. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports more than 10,000 people were killed in drunken-driving crashes in 2010, accounting for nearly one-third of all traffic-related deaths in the nation.

But the city has no protocol in place for addressing alcoholism. Nor does it have a viable testing program to uncover prescription drug abuse, which has become an “epidemic,” according to the CDC.

“The prevalence of substance abuse is certainly a public health issue, especially prescription drug abuse,” Markovich said.

More than 2.4 million Americans begin using prescription pain relievers for nonmedical purposes — that is, to get high — every year. This results in more than 17,000 overdoses annually and opioid analgesic pain pills are responsible for more poisoning deaths than any other drug, including heroin and cocaine, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

Moreover, the Drug Free Coalition of Hall County reports 24 people in the county died from overdoses related to prescription drug use in 2010.

“Certainly there are some drugs (testing) won’t detect,” Wangemann said. “That would be a concern of mine.”

The new policy will give workers a 60-day notice prior to any test, presenting another potential gap in the city’s efforts to address drug use among its employees.

“I do strongly believe there are ways around (drug testing),” Markovich said. “I think there’s still going to be people who slip through the cracks.”

But having workers find ways to get clean before a drug test, only to resume using afterward, might not be the only consequence of the new policy, particularly as it relates to marijuana — the most commonly used illicit substance in the world. The drug is so common, in fact, that Colorado and Washington state have decided to tax and regulate its recreational use rather than spend tens of millions of dollars fighting its distribution.

“Generally, what happens when you introduce drug screening into a workplace ... is it doesn’t necessarily curb marijuana usage,” Sharp said, adding that people turn to harder drugs, like cocaine, heroin or prescription drugs, that wash out of their system quicker and allow them to beat a test. “The harder drugs are what’s killing people.”

If an employee does lose his or her job over a failed test, Markovich said she hopes the city will be there to support them rather than washing their hands of the situation.

“I definitely think that if an employee were to be terminated for drug abuse, I think that (the city) needs to provide them with treatment — even if they are being fired,” she added. “You can’t just throw them out on the road ...”