Pubdate: Fri, 06 Oct 2000 Source: NewsWatch (US Web) Copyright: 2000 www.NewsWatch.org Contact: email@example.com Address: 2100 L Street NW, Suite 300, Washington, DC 20037 Feedback: http://www.newswatch.org/talktomedia.htm Website: http://www.newswatch.org/ Author: Maia Szalavitz
THE LOS ANGELES TIMES STRUGGLES TO START A DRUG SCARE
America is booming. Productivity is at an all-time high, unemployment at a dramatic low, the U.S. is seeing its greatest economic expansion ever, lead by high tech companies - but the Los Angeles Times is worried. Some Internet employees are - oh dear! - taking drugs.
And even though there is no actual evidence that high-tech workers take more drugs than their low tech peers, and no evidence that workplace drug testing solves drug problems, the Los Angeles Times in a two-part series calls drugs "The Dirty Little Secret of the Dotcom World" (10/01/00 and 10/02/00) suggests that, more drug testing would help address this new menace to society.
But is there really a problem specific to techies and is testing really the solution?
Throughout the articles, you can feel the authors straining because the data contradicts what they want it to show. For one, they want to prove that high tech workers use drugs more than others, and yet, as they admit, "it's too early for formalstudies that quantify the problem." Instead, they point to "ominous signs of its growing proportions."
These signs are mostly increases in cocaine and amphetamine seizures in areas where high tech companies are located - and the fact that the Coast Guard seized more cocaine this year than ever before.
But seizures are a notoriously poor way to measure drug use. Researchers estimate that authorities capture only about 1/10th of the drugs on the market, but it's not unheard of for them to get lucky and capture more or be unlucky at other times and seize less. The important question of whether seizures represent a steady portion of a steady market, a growing portion of a shrinking market or a smaller portion of a growing market remain unanswered. Seizures are simply not a proper sample
The Times' other line of support for its contention that drug use is growing amongst techies is the claim by treatment providers that they are seeing more and more dot-commers among their patients. However, the professionals the paper spoke to work at expensive private rehabilitation centers. In the past, insurance coverage allowed most middle class addicts to attend such places, but now, with insurance for inpatient care virtually eliminated by HMO's, none but the very rich can afford them.
Since a greater proportion than ever of the moneyed elite are now high tech workers, the over-representation that providers report could simply reflect the fact that dot com millionaires are increasingly among only ones left who can afford their care, and not that high tech industries have a growing drug problem.
Another example of bias can be seen in the series' perspective on drug testing. Though the reporters do spend time bewailing the fact that computer companies test only lowly blue-collar workers and not the big time executives or creatives (a practice hardly limited to high-tech businesses, though probably more hushed up in the past), the implication is that the solution is to test everyone, not to drop testing.
The data here gives the reporters another headache. A recent major study of drug testing shows that high-tech companies that test their employees have lower productivity than those that don't. And this supports earlier studies in other industries that found employees who tested positive weren't less productive or more likely to be absent than those who tested negative.
One may justifiably ask, "then what is the point of drug testing if most drug users, as most alcohol users, aren't addicted and so don't let their drug use harm their work?"
But not the Los Angeles Times. In the second part of the series, "Drug Tests Are Multiple Choice at High Tech Firms," the newspaper points out that these companies see themselves as "rule breakers who avoid all the strictures synonymous with old-style corporate America. And there's nothing more old school than drug testing."
The paper goes on to say that "their reasons [for avoiding testing] mix a culture of acceptance of alternative lifestyles with an emphasis on productivity" and then cites the study showing that drug testing is linked with lower productivity. But since when is high productivity and acceptance of alternative lifestyles a bad thing? Perhaps the dotcom companies are onto something and their spectacular increase in productivity has something to do with respecting employees' dignity and not interfering with their personal lives?
(And of course, there is the entirely more subversive issue of whether drugs actually help some workers do better)
Other studies cited by the paper also undermine their points. The number of people aged 19-28 who report powder cocaine use tripled between 1994 and 1999, a period when the overwhelming majority of companies (81% in 1996) drug tested workers. If drug testing had any effect on use rates at all - if it wasn't seen when 80% of companies were testing - it's unlikely ever to materialize.
Continuing its losing streak, the Times then claims that the young workers who drive the Net were "mere toddlers" during the cocaine epidemic of the late 70's and early 80's and so are unaware of the dangers of cocaine. But according to the Industry Standard, the average Internet worker is 33, and two thirds are over 30. A 33 year old would have been 19 in 1986 - the year college basketball star Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose at the peak of media hysteria over drugs. He or she would have received more drug education and anti-drug messages than ever before in history.
There's more. Try this out as a factual statement: "Although there are no statistics showing that drug and alcohol addiction afflicts technology workers more than the general population, experts say tech workers are more susceptible than those in say, Hollywood, or Wall Street because of their work." Evidence for that bizarre generalization, please?
And here's yet another howler: "Today the drug of choice is cocaine and the movement's hero is not the Grateful Dead or Timothy Leary but the Gordon Gekko character in the movie Wall Street." Um, weren't these workers supposed to be too young to recall Wall Street in the go-go cocaine 80's? (And how do the reporters account for the "early adoption" of the Internet by vast numbers of Deadheads?)
The Los Angeles Times is so busy trying to create a drug scare and so engrained in the ideology of the war on drugs that it misses the real story: the war on drugs hasn't prevented increases in drug use; increases in drug use haven't yet caused America to go to hell in a handbasket; and drug testing doesn't help those workers who are addicted to recover.
In fact, the death of a tech worker spotlighted in the first part of the series is a testament to the harm caused by the drug war itself. Aaron Bunnell ofUpside.com died of an overdose of heroin, alcohol and Valium. But what he really died of was ignorance if his death was indeed as the New York City medical examiner's office concluded, unintentional.
Pharmacologists know that mixing downs is a good recipe for coma and death. In fact, most heroin overdoses are heroin plus alcohol and/or other depressants, not heroin alone. Honest drug education would teach people these facts - not just that all drugs are bad and no civil liberty is too sacred to sacrifice to the goal of keeping kids clean. The Los Angeles Times does the public a disservice by running stories like these that reinforce, rather than question, prevailing assumptions.
Maia Szalavitz is author, with Dr. Joseph Volpicelli of the University of Pennsylvania, of "Recovery Options: The Complete Guide: How You and Your Loved Ones Can Understand and Treat Alcohol and Other Drug Problems." [Wiley, 2000]. She has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsday, Newsweek, Salon, New York Magazine and other major publications.