A Comprehensive History of U.S. Drug Testing Part III

The Slippery Slope

The Methadone King flew to Vietnam a few days after his appointment was announced. He told an incredulous field command about his audacious idea to drug test every single soldier slated to return home.

The generals refused, explaining that any drug use under the code of military justice was grounds for a dishonorable discharge and anything less than that was “mollycoddling… just being soft on drug addicts.” The new drug czar noted the commander’s objections and then put a call in to the White House and had the Commander-In-Chief issue a single-page memo amending the military code. “If you tested positive,” Jaffe smiled, “it was no longer a court-martial offense.” Problem solved. Operation Golden Flow was up and running and within weeks the military was drug testing the roughly 1,000 soldiers that were leaving Vietnam every day.

“That was what moved this issue to the front burner,” Robert DuPont recalled. “It wasn’t crime. Crime got it started. But what moved it to the front was Vietnam.”

Presently, Congressman Steele backed off the fifteen percent addiction claim. Even before Golden Flow was operational, Steele admitted that the estimate in the House Report he co-authored was grossly exaggerated and that the real figure was closer to five percent. A few months later, the first round of Jaffe’s testing found that only 4.5% of U.S. soldiers tested positive for heroin in southeast Asia; once again, comparatively good news but a figure that is almost certainly wrong because the testing matrix was primitive by modern standards. By February 1972 the positive test rate fell to under two percent. The Nixon Administration deemed Operation Golden flow a success and declared victory over heroin in Southeast Asia. That wouldn’t last, but for all intents and purposes, Golden Flow was the success they needed it to be, and random suspicionless drug testing was extended throughout the military. Not long afterward, Jaffe’s multi-modality drug rehabilitation program was expanded nationwide to the general public, and boomers of a certain age will remember when methadone clinics started popping up all over the country in the early 1970s.  Jerry Jaffe’s faceted program offered a host of rehab choices – detoxification, counseling, et al – but methadone maintenance had them waiting in line for the clinic to open. As predicted, it produced an immediate albeit temporary reduction in street crime and heroin abuse simply by substituting one addictive opioid for another and by replacing the street dealer with a drug counselor. Seen in hindsight, however, it was an honest attempt to curtail hard drug use in the U.S. For many years Nixon’s war on narcotics was the only time America’s drug war favored rehab over enforcement. The equation was correct but the method applied was a temporary solution at best. Replacing one addictive drug with another was not the answer, and political fallout followed methadone maintenance like a toxic cloud.

“Enslavement,” Du Pont summed up the symbolism for Frontline with sarcasm. “It was enslaving the black underclass. It was… the opiate of the masses, being given out by the government for political purposes, to make docile the revolutionaries who were otherwise going to free themselves and change the society. That’s the way people thought,” DuPont recalled. At least that’s “what some people thought.”

Members of the armed services seemed to be perfect guinea pigs for a widespread drug test program because GIs, like prisoners, have limited rights. They have to obey orders and live by a military code. But when the Committee for GI Rights sued, the U.S. Supreme Court protected drug testing for military personnel under the umbrella of an “Administrative Search Exception” – a legal instrument from the 1960s that was initially used to permit common intrusions like safety code inspections without having to obtain a warrant. Beginning in the 1970s the federal courts found ways to expand the meaning of the administrative search to include all kinds of mischief so widespread and facile that the government now performs millions of warrantless suspicionless searches each year, and such intrusions – once thought to be fundamental violations of constitutional guarantees – have become the norm rather than the exception. Anyone who has ever been screened at an international border, scanned by a courthouse metal detector, magnetically imaged at an airport or stopped at a sobriety checkpoint has been subject to an Administrative Search, something that was originally intended to let the housing inspector in the basement.

In 1975 the District of Columbia Appeals Court ruled that drug testing military personnel was an Administrative Search. That precedent would be used repeatedly – outrageously – in federal court cases over many years to expand the ambit of urinalysis in the public sector, without suspicion, without a warrant, with its many flaws intact. These federal court decisions along with a host of Congressional legislation would kick-start the entire drug test industry in the 1980s and set in stone the lax standards for urinalysis and for other forms of drug testing for generations to come. These pissant standards, cobbled together to ignore the limits of the technology, have quietly redefined the margins of the 4th Amendment. And when the scurrilous Patriot Act was trotted out after 9/11 in 2001, the many precedents for an expanded Administrative Search were cited to make it all seem normal when, in fact, it was fast slide down the slippery slope.

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