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Sense of reason lost amid businesses' drug-test hysteria

For a few short hours Thursday morning, amid balloons and breakfast speeches, Tampa Bay's war on drugs turned on one catchy slogan. A drug-free work place has become the war cry of corporate America, just as "Just Say No" became former first lady Nancy Reagan's mantra.

Robert Soran, president of Tropicana Products, stood before a Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce crowd and, like a general in a war room, described his company's battle plan to weed out cocaine addicts and other dopers.

At Tropicana, anyone who applies for a job and any employee involved in an accident is tested for drugs. In the first six months of testing, Tropicana saw a 50 percent drop in job applications. I learned later that salaried employees in line for promotions at Tropicana also get tested.

Soran laid out an even more sobering strategy: a preferred vendor plan, which means, simply, that you do business with those businesses that conduct drug testing. It's kind of a reverse boycott.

Corporate America is responding to the clarion call for drug-free work places with patriotic zeal. About 120 Tampa businesses, as well as the city of Tampa, have jumped on the bandwagon and do some kind of drug testing.

In the roomful of red and white balloons, Soran's message was applauded.

I suppose there are executives who believe that to oppose this new ammo in the drug war would be almost un-American.

Yet the idea of wholesale drug testing strikes me as a little bit like going deer hunting with an AK-47. It's overkill. And the thought of insisting on having someone I want to hire urinate in a jar while someone else watches _ as some companies do _ is repugnant.

Daniel M. Machin, a 29-year-old city firefighter until July, also would not have had the stomach for the message served at the Chamber breakfast.

Machin lost his job over a drug test. A disgruntled firefighter, under investigation for another matter, accused Machin and two others of using drugs on duty. The city can test employees if a reasonable suspicion of illegal drug use is raised, so they did. The two other firefighters agreed to be tested; Machin refused, and he was fired.

The tests of his two colleagues were negative. Machin later took a private drug test, which also turned out negative.

For the flimsiest of reasons _ a disgruntled co-worker's angry accusations _ the city lost a worker who had been considered above average.

Employers, like Soran, see an overriding need for drug testing. About 75 percent of Americans who abuse drugs or alcohol also hold jobs, they tell you. Businesses facing drug and alcohol problems frequently complain about absenteeism, tardiness, reduced productivity and low morale _ the same kinds of problems I imagine one could expect from someone going through a messy divorce.

The fact is, employers have plenty of ways to evaluate job performance. Most don't need drug tests or Breathalyzers or lie detectors to assist them. And the money they spend on drug tests would be spent more wisely on counseling programs.

An ounce of reason might be the best antidote to the hysteria that is sweeping many companies and prompting them to heave individuals' rights to privacy out the window.

You might not want to fly with a coked-up pilot, but would you want to fly with one who was drunk or one who had the flu for that matter?

Alcohol is by far the most abused substance in this country, but how many company executives are ordering Breathalyzers or are worrying whether an employee had a martini or two at the dinner table?

If the glasses on the table at Thursday's breakfast had held mimosas rather than orange juice, I wonder how many people in the room would have objected.