His cup runneth over with annoyance

Matt Welch is assistant editorial page editor at The Times.

THE NEWSPAPER you are reading has been lovingly compiled by hundreds of humans who urinated into plastic measuring cups for the privilege of bringing it to you.

I gather this is not widely known among readers, judging by the reaction from those I’ve told. “Why would the L.A. Times care whether you’ve smoked pot?” goes the typical response. It doesn’t help with the comprehension that it’s not immediately evident that anyone here actually does.

Yet it’s been company policy for at least 18 years that every new hire excrete on command while a rubber-gloved nurse waits outside with her ear plastered to the door. Those who test positive for illegal drugs don’t get their promised job, on grounds that someone who can’t stay off the stuff long enough to pass a one-time, advance-notice screening might have a problem. (And yes, it has happened in the newsroom a handful of times.) This despite the fact that we generally don’t operate machinery heavier than a coffee pot, aren’t likely to sell our secrets to blackmailing Russkies and are supposed to be at least theoretically representative of typical Americans.


Because guess what? The typical American — and just about every journalist I’ve ever asked — has already tried marijuana at least once before the age of 25, according to the government’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health. What’s more, despite 35 years and billions of dollars’ worth of taxpayer-financed propaganda to the contrary, most of those who’ve inhaled didn’t collapse through the “gateway” into desperate heroin addiction or “Traffic”-style sex slavery. George W. Bush turned out all right (at least on paper), as did Al Gore, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bill Walton, Michael Bloomberg and millions more.

These complaints are familiar; I’ve made them several times myself (for instance, this self-shaming line from 1998: “I didn’t get into this racket so I could … submit to insulting urine tests”). I’m generally the kind of smart-ass who bristles at being told what to do (like registering for the “Selective” Service at 18, which I selected not to); and for the last few years I’ve worked at the libertarian Reason magazine, the kind of place where senior editors write books called “Saying Yes.”

Yet there I was two weeks ago, handing my warm yellow beaker to the urine analyst (“Your temperature is nice,” she said, clearly trying to soften the blow). So, presented with the lure of an interesting job, did I abandon my libertarian principles even faster than the Gingrich revolution?

Well, yes, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. First came the bluffing (“Is there a drug test? Because I won’t take one.”) Then the bargaining — I offered to pay more for health insurance, or sign a sworn affidavit detailing my laughably tame drug history … to no avail. A real punk rocker, or at least a dedicated fan of Mojo Nixon (he of “I Ain’t Gonna Piss in No Jar” fame from the mid-1980s, when drug testing was still controversial among newspaper employees), would have played chicken with the human resources department to see who blinked first. Instead, I folded like a cheap tent.

Worst of all, I didn’t even have the basic decency to fail. As is infamous among friends who’ve known me long enough, a single hit of pot is enough to reduce me to a whimpering fetal crouch for several incommunicative hours at a time. During my last such tempting of fate, several years back, my crippled brain could not decipher whether the trailer for “A Mighty Wind” indicated a comedy or horror film. When it comes to every substance except red wine and Pacifico, I’m basically a Mormon.

Which is why, among other things, our milk-slurping pals from Utah are famously overrepresented in sensitive government jobs that require higher levels of drug screening, like at the CIA. But do we really want our spook work handled by guys who blush at PG-13 movies? What kind of country would we be when most jobs require such ritual humiliation?


The answer is: The country we already are. Since Ronald Reagan introduced federal government drug testing in 1986, workplace screening, egged on by Washington, climbed quickly to about 50% of all jobs and has remained basically static since then. The republic has managed to survive.

Like airport security, open-air smoking bans and drunk-driving checkpoints, drug testing is an insulting annoyance that was met with much initial grumbling (particularly from journalists), then quickly became part of the accepted background noise of modern life. We instinctively compensate for these setbacks by exploring new freedoms elsewhere, before the buzz-killers find out.

At least that’s what I keep telling myself.