Workplace drug testing is likely to become increasingly common as employers attempt to cut ''presenteeism'' and ensure safety, one of Australia's leading workplace drug experts says.
But unions say the tests, which are backed by little evidence proving they lead to safer workplaces, are an unfair invasion of privacy, particularly when they come in the form of a urine test.
The Global Drug Survey, a survey of nearly 5850 Australian drug and alcohol users conducted in partnership with Fairfax Media, has found one in eight people had been asked by their employer to take a drug test.
But it also showed workplaces could be right to worry. More than a third of full-time workers surveyed said they had taken drugs or alcohol within two hours of starting work, and some had even begun to use newly invented psychoactive drugs in an attempt to stay one step ahead of the testers.
Ken Pidd, the deputy director, research, at the National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction in Adelaide, said the tests were a growing trend.
"Obviously the biggest threat from workplace drug use is safety, if people are intoxicated at work, but there is a much larger picture around absenteeism, or even presenteeism, related to use outside the workplace," he said.
He recently conducted a review of the evidence in favour of the tests, and found outside of a few circumstances, such as mandatory alcohol testing for US truck drivers, there was little proof they improved safety. "It is a particular issue for urine testing, which doesn't actually detect impairment, just prior use," he said.
Dr Pidd said studies had found the overall rate of use of drugs and alcohol in the workplace in Australia was relatively low, although in some industries such as hospitality and finance rates were far higher.
"Workplace drug use tends to be in line with drug use in the broader population,'' he said.
"There are some types of drugs that are increasing, such as prescription drugs, so they are likely to be increasing in the workplace as well.''
He said prescription drugs posed a particular problem for people returning to work from injury, as they could exacerbate problems by doing more damage with dulled pain sensations. Dr Pidd expected workplace drug testing to increase, but said other, less expensive techniques such as the provision of information or counselling could in some cases be more effective.
Alex Claassens, NSW secretary of the Rail, Tram and Bus Union, said workers were still being subjected to "invasive and unhygienic" urine drug testing.
''Mouth swab testing is safe, sure, instant and conforms with the National Rail Safety legislation and should replace the outdated practice of urine testing for NSW transport workers," he said.
Peyote was amazing, says lawyer
Miles Hunt is a partner in an inner-city law firm, but he won’t let that stop him admitting he also uses drugs.
‘‘I’ve used many drugs — most,’’ he says.
‘‘Tobacco, alcohol, cannabis, ecstasy, cocaine, hallucinogens, peyote ... peyote was amazing.’’
The drug law reform advocate is happy to admit his continuing drug use because he believes the silence around drugs is only causing harm in society.
‘‘I believe drugs should be taken responsibly,’’ he says. ‘‘They’re dangerous, but people can have good experiences and prohibition doesn’t allow us to talk about it. People do many things that are dangerous. Driving is dangerous, eating fast foods is dangerous, but the best way to deal with that is to openly discuss it.’’
Mr Hunt, 32, says in his work he often saw young people whose lives had been changed, even ruined, after they had been caught with small quantities of drugs, but he had never been caught.
‘‘I think some people are more likely to be searched or pulled over by police, which is a real discrimination problem.
‘‘You don’t see bankers being pulled over and searched for cocaine,’’ he says.