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Should drugs workers be drug tested?

May 20 2009
Service users don‘t want their chaos to be mirrored in the lives of the people trying to help them There is an emerging debate about whether drug workers should be tested for drug use. I would argue there is a need for a consistent policy on this issue across services for vulnerable people. According to a random straw poll of workers and recovering addicts I carried this week, there was a 50:50 split on whether or not to test. Some people said what workers did in their spare time was their own business. Others argued that it was hypocritical for workers to tell other people what to do if they were using drugs themselves. A common argument was: "Why shouldn't drug workers be tested? What have they got to hide? It can't do any harm." On the downside, drug testing of workers could lead to a "nanny state," where workers are less trusted and constantly under the eye of Big Brother. Testing could drive problems underground, creating a culture of dishonesty and suspicion. Would workers become just like 'service users,' buying urine from each other, and ducking and diving to pass the test? Would they go to 'service users' for a bit of expert advice? Drug and alcohol testing is not uncommon. Drug users are tested on arrest, pilots are randomly tested 24 hours before flying and sportsmen are tested for performance enhancing drugs. So why should we test drugs workers, what would we be trying to achieve and how would testing impact on service users? I know some (smug) drugs workers who don't use any drugs, including alcohol, and wouldn't have any qualms about being drug tested. But others would. There are countless examples on the grapevine of workers who use substances during work time and while socialising with work colleagues. Would they really want to be tested? There are even occasions when workers have more substance misuse problems than those they are employed to help, and in some cases staff are certainly being hypocritical by abusing Class A drugs whilst preaching abstinence, although it rarely goes unnoticed by those used to the signs. I would argue these workers are being arrogant and naive. If I were a 'client', I wouldn't want to see my worker with their face in their dinner or disappearing to the khazi for a two-week holiday. I would want them to come into work at least looking better than me, not burned out and f**ked. Most addicts live in a world where their lives are about getting and using drugs. They have an in-built 'illness detector.' They are programmed to seek out other drug users and can spot another user at a 1,000 paces. They will know whether or not a worker has a problem. As the saying goes; if you can spot it, you've got it. So for people with chronic dependency issues around substance misuse, I think workers need to be clear about the messages that they send out. Those using need a positive culture in which to get well. 'Service users' don't want their chaos to be mirrored in the lives of the people trying to help them. Drugs workers' jobs are about helping people turn their lives around, not unwittingly colluding with them because of their own agendas around drug use. Government policies also add to the chaos as there is much evidence to suggest that drug and alcohol policies are failing to deliver. This is borne out by the fact that drug use is steadily rising, and alcohol use is also increasing in the general population. If present trends continue the UK will be near the top of the alcohol consumption league within the next ten years. This is not just about the group of people who use drug services, this means everyone. The message that workers need to hear is that drug testing of staff could be a way to improve service delivery. Workers need to be seen to be leading by example. Evidence shows that peer education works. People get well by seeing other people get well. Testing would go some way towards dissipating the scepticism felt by many seeking help regarding workers and their substance use. The view among addicts that staff are being hypocritical will also lessen if staff are tested. It would also bring staff more on-side with 'service users.' Staff would also be less able to allow their own substance misuse problems into the workplace. Sending out the right message to people with substance use issues could be more important than the civil liberties aspect regarding testing workers. Drug workers need to be viewed as an integral part in the treatment process. They need to be seen in a positive light by the clients. A more honest appraisal of current work practices is sorely needed.
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