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Transportation Industries & Drug Testing

Amtrak’s Colonial, with 616 passengers aboard, was traveling at 105 miles an hour when it piled into a string of Conrail freight engines heading toward Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Fifteen people were killed and another 176 injured—the worst accident in Amtrak’s history.

Federal investigators said they were focusing on two possible reasons why the trains ended up on the same track: a warning whistle was disabled, and a bulb was missing from a critical signal light in the Colonial’s cab.

Within days, though, Dr. Delbert J. Lacefield, chief of the Federal Aviation Administration’s forensic toxicology unit working under contract to the Federal Railroad Association, announced that he had found THC in the blood of two members of the freight train’s crew. THC is fat-soluble and stored in the body for weeks, so a urine test cannot measure marijuana impairment. Nevertheless, the news that railroad employees had at some point smoked pot sparked an outcry for wider urine testing in the transportation industries.

The Senate Commerce Committee overwhelmingly approved a bill to require random drug tests on airline pilots. An alarming figure was cited: The number of midair near misses had more than doubled since 1981. That happened to have been the year Ronald Reagan fired—on a single day—every qualified air-traffic controller in the country for participating in a strike. Five years later, the corps of controllers still wasn’t up to strength and little more than half of those working were fully qualified. To top it off, the administration admitted that in 1986 it had looted an $8 billion air-safety fund from the Transportation Department. There may have been many causes for the rise in near misses, but once again the blame was falling on drug takers.

The Reagan administration, insisting that improved testing was 98 percent accurate, released a final plan to urine-test a quarter of its 4 million civilian employees. If 98 percent accurate, urine testing a million people still placed the careers of 20,000 innocents at risk. The National Treasury Employees Union filed suit immediately. And with old-fashioned entrepreneurial flair, a mail-order company began offering guaranteed drug-free urine for $49.95 a sample.

(Taken from SMOKE & MIRRORS - The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure - Dan Baum)

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