Testing the State

Risch, drug czar ponder drug tests for all state employees


In an effort to set a good example for private businesses last month, Gov. Jim Risch said that he wants to make state government a "drug-free workplace."

He never really elaborated on the concept. But since then, Risch and the state Drug Czar Jim Tibbs said they are considering expanding drug testing to all state agencies and employees.

"If Idaho state government is concerned about the use of drugs, particularly methamphetamine, we've got to walk the talk," Tibbs said. "And this is how you do it."

Getting there won't be easy, and Tibbs admitted that drug testing in state government would be controversial and would require a massive education process. Further, he said, he would want to have treatment options available for employees who do test positive for illegal drug use. He said that would be preferable to just firing the employees and calling the police.

"It won't start that way," Tibbs said. "A program like this would need to be phased in."

Of the more than 25,000 people that work in state government, some are already tested. No statistics are available, but several agencies already perform routine drug testing. Many are employees who have commercial drivers' licenses and who regularly drive state-owned vehicles, or who work in sensitive situations.

According to the governor's office, these include the Department of Corrections, where agency staff perform random testing for employees with commercial driver licenses, or where "reasonable suspicion" exists, in accordance with a written policy. In the Department of Juvenile Corrections, employees are subject to pre-employment drug screening and random drug testing for "safety-sensitive positions." At the Idaho State Police, the agency is drafting a policy to create random testing of uniformed officers, but currently requires pre-employment and reasonable-suspicion testing of all employees. In the Department of Transportation, all commercially-licensed employees go through pre-employment and random testing. The agency is considering a policy to bring pilots in line with requirements faced by commercially-licensed drivers. Similar testing of drivers exists at the Department of Parks and Recreation, at Boise State University and at the Department of Health and Welfare, according to Risch's office.

For his part, Risch said only that he and his staff were considering the concept of expanding drug testing.

"We're still vetting that internally," Risch said.

But, he said, the state was clearly lacking what he called "a uniform policy" on drug testing within state government.

"It is somewhat hit and miss," Risch said.

Tibbs, who is also a Boise city councilor and a former chief of the Boise Police Department, said the reasons for wanting to enforce a drug-testing policy are simple: citizens want to have faith that their government is running a clean shop. Furthermore, he said, the state needs to be a leader in this area if it's going to be able to admonish private employers about their drug-testing policies.

But a representative from a state employees' union said the idea of testing all state employees would be a logistical nightmare at best. Andrew Hanhardt, president of the Service Employees International Union local, called the policy proposal "ludicrous" and raised the prospect of a time-consuming and budget-busting mandate.

"Nobody wants to work around anybody who is stoned or drunk," Hanhardt said. "But I cannot imagine a scenario where this would be easily done."

The Service Employees International Union represents some 500 state employees, Hanhardt said.

The discussion over drug testing came about as Tibbs was pursuing a massive review of Idaho's drug prevention and control policies. In his first three months on the job, he reviewed the policies and programs in place at agencies involved in drug abuse and prevention tactics.

He found that Idaho has 133 government-sponsored substance abuse programs. In his recommendations to Risch and lawmakers, Tibbs mentioned the need to develop "common screening and assessment protocols system wide."

Marianne King, a manager for the Drug-Free Workplace program at Drug Free Idaho, a statewide nonprofit, applauded Tibbs's idea, and said the nearly 100 businesses and government agencies that participate in drug testing with Drug Free Idaho find the program to be beneficial. Results include lower rates of absenteeism, workers' compensation claims and ultimately, King said, better performance across the company.

"You can't deny that it's controversial," King said. "But we are finding that there are significant benefits." Her group works with, among other agencies, the Ada County Sheriff's Office to pursue drug-free workplace standards. In addition, Drug Free Idaho helps the Department of Juvenile Corrections administer its drug tests.

If the state wanted to do more testing, it could mean a boom in business for drug-testing laboratories, but not necessarily local ones. Because the state wants its drug tests to be administered by a highly certified source, most of its drug tests are ultimately processed through labs in California. That's because no laboratory in Idaho has been certified by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. King said her group uses Quest Diagnostics in California because it meets those federal standards.

"It does add that extra level of credibility," King said. "If there's anything in a sample, it will be identified." Likewise, she said, any sample, typically a urine sample, that appears to be missing typical ingredients would also be flagged for further inquiry.

Despite the logistical hurdles that would accompany statewide testing of all government workers, Tibbs said he was convinced that drug testing was a responsible way to force state government to be a role model in the arena of drug-free workplace policies.

"Drug testing works. It's not this big, nasty, ugly monster that employees should fear," Tibbs said. "Ultimately, everybody should be thrown into the pot."

But Hanhardt wondered just who "everybody" means.

He noted that any testing of all state employees ought to include officials such as the governor, the Legislature, and state agency leaders.

"I look forward to them going along with that as well," Hanhardt said. "That would be the right thing to do."