Statistics- Page 3
When I asked Walsh about the flaws in these studies, he replied: "You could make the
same argument about any database in higher research, such as cancer research, or mental
health research." This is an insult to every scientist in those fields. None of the studies
that Walsh touts has passed peer review (or is likely to), whereas thousands of papers on
cancer and mental health have passed this minimal standard.
Walsh sometimes sounds quite reasonable and "scientific," especially when he talks
about the mechanics of testing. He emphasizes that when a drug test comes up positive it
should be confirmed by a more sophisticated analysis (a good idea, since poppy seeds,
ibuprofen, and cold pills can trigger false alarms for heroin, marijuana, and
amphetamines, respectively). He also stresses the importance of maintaining high
laboratory standards and confidentiality.
But whenever he ventures beyond the mechanics of testing and tries to justify the
enterprise itself, he shows an odd disregard for facts. For example, he frequently suggests
that drug abuse is rampant not just in specific sectors of society, but broadly and
pervasively. "The problem of drug abuse is so widespread in America," he declared in a
speech last year, "that every company must assume that its employees will eventually be
faced with a substance abuse-problem of their own, of a family member, of a co-worker,
or of a friend." He always neglects to mention that NIDA'S own statistics show that the
use of illegal drugs-marijuana, cocaine, PCP, the whole lot -- has been declining sharply
for years. Severe cocaine addiction (daily use) has increased, but primarily among the
unemployed, who are beyond the reach of workplace testing.
I asked Walsh whether he thought that, given these data, his efforts to promote workplace
testing might be misplaced. "I think drug abuse has gone down because of these
workplace programs," he replied. I pointed out -- again according to NIDA's data -- that
the decline began in 1979, well before testing had caught on. Then Walsh asserted that,
whether or not drug use has declined among workers and whether or not severe addiction
occurs largely among the unemployed, there are still an estimated 10 million working
people who are using illicit drugs, and they represent a "much bigger problem than the
few hard core...... The concept is to eliminate illegal drug use," he said, "not just to focus
on those who are addicted."
This sentiment, of course, lies at the core of all of Walsh's uninformed claims. He adheres
to the zero-tolerance line, which doesn't discriminate between use and abuse, between a
secretary smoking marijuana on weekends and an AIDS-ridden prostitute smoking $100
worth of crack a day. From this perspective, drug testing -- which also fails to
discriminate between casual and chronic user -- makes sense.
But then, Walsh does believe that even occasional marijuana use can have devastating
effects. "I think we have reached the point where the involvement of marijuana in
accidents exceeds that of alcohol," he said. Where is his proof for this dramatic
statement? He doesn't have any, but "it's one of the things in my research program we're
trying to do right now." Note the procedure: Walsh reaches his conclusion first, then sets
out to prove it.
As a scientist, Walsh is probably in over his head. He has testified to having "over twenty
years of experience (fifteen years in the laboratory) in research on the physiological and
behavioral effects of psychoactive drugs." Well, sort of. Before joining NIDA in 1980,
Walsh spent fourteen years at the Naval Medical Research Institute studying what might
be called underwater altered states. For his Ph.D., which he received from American
University in 1973, he studied nitrogen narcosis ("rapture of the deep"). Typical of his
pre-NIDA publications is a paper about what happens to mice when they are given
morphine under "hyperbolic abnormally high pressure" and an article called "Should
Divers Take Drugs?" published in something called Faceplate.
On the other hand, if you view Walsh not as a scientist but as a propagandist, you have to
admit he has done his job well. A decade ago virtually no companies had testing
programs. Now a majority -- including such bastions of liberalism as The New York
Times -- test employees, job applicants, or both. Walsh can't take all the credit, but he
certainly has done his part. Perhaps that is why he remains so strangely sanguine when
confronted with all the inconsistencies in his logic. He has already won the day. "Drug
testing," he says with pride, "is here to stay."
John Horgan writes for Scientific American.
(This article was published in The New Republic, April 2, 1990)