Would Drug Testing at Work Actually Reduce Drug Use? We Asked an Expert

The Conservative candidate for Mayor of London, Shaun Bailey, has called for “middle class” drug users to be tested at work, in a bid to stop gang violence. But are either of those issues actually connected?
August 24, 2020, 2:01pm
shaun bailey drugs
Left: Shaun Bailey. Photo: AF archive / Alamy Stock Photo

Today, Conservative candidate for Mayor of London, Shaun Bailey, announced a controversial policy idea that would see workers tested for drug use by their employers.

According to Bailey’s open letter, companies of over 250 employees would have to anonymously test their employees and publish the results. This would, according to Bailey, not result in the penalisation of employees, but “change the culture” around “middle class drug use”.

Bailey’s argument is that “middle class” drug use – commonly considered to be the use of powder cocaine or ecstasy – fuels violent country lines operations, gang crime and the death of young Black men.

In the open letter, seen by the Sunday Times, Bailey writes: “There is a responsibility for polite drug users to have a look at themselves, because it isn’t actually that polite if you grow up where I grew up. If you come from Bow or Shepherd’s Bush, the effect of people’s drug use in the City or in Kingston is literally murder.”

“There is no more effective way of stopping the creation of gangs than taking away the demand for drugs,” he adds.

But is there actually a link between “middle class” drug use and gang violence? VICE News spoke to Professor Alex Stevens, an academic in criminal justice at the University of Kent, and a senior editor at International Journal of Drug Policy, to fact check Bailey’s comments and tweets on the subject.

VICE News: Is there any truth to Bailey’s claims?
Alex Stevens: The short answer is no. There is a link between drug markets and violence, and there is obviously a link between county lines and drugs, but the majority of the supply of drugs through country lines is to dependent users of heroin and crack, who do not tend to be middle class drug users – commonly imaged to be people taking powdered cocaine at dinner parties.

They don't get their drugs from county lines operations at all, so they account for a very small proportion of the drug market, because they use cocaine so relatively infrequently compared to people using crack every day. They're not using that much of the cocaine in the market compared to dependent users, and they're not getting it from the most violent elements in the market.

Bailey also tweeted, “Middle class drug use funds the gangs unleashing misery on our streets.” Would tackling “middle class drug use” make London’s streets safer?
There's no mechanism by which "tackling" – whatever that means – would deliver safer streets, because there's hardly any link from middle class drug use to violent drug markets. Violence around drug markets tends to be around the part of the market that is delivering heroin and crack to dependent drug users. It's that part of the market you need to address if you want to do anything about drug markets and violence.


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Is a mandatory drugs test for workers in companies over 250 employees a good idea to tackle these issues?
I think it's one of those ideas that looks attractive at first sight, because people think, intuitively, people being tested means they're less likely to do drugs, and that will reduce the amount of drugs, and that will reduce the size of the market, and therefore the violence associated with it. But it's nowhere near as simple as that, for a number of reasons.

One of the reasons is that there's not very good evidence that testing people at work for drug use does anything to help them or to reduce their drug use. There are various studies that have been done in the US on whether testing people at work for drug use reduces the levels of drug use, and the evidence on that is inconclusive, even in most scenarios where people face some punishment or accountability for their positive test. That's problematic in itself, because people shouldn't have their working lives mix with their personal lives.

There's potential for harm – one harm is that it imposes costs on employer, but also it imposes costs on people, because they're less likely to come to work if they think they're being tested and will face that humiliation or exposure as a drug user. It's more likely to push people with drug problems out of the labour market, which is exactly the opposite of what we want to do in terms of helping them overcome their drug problems.

If people lose their jobs or move away from their jobs because they're being drug tested, they're more likely to slip into mental health problems that lead to problematic drug use, that then leads to dependent use of heroin and crack, therefore increasing the size of the market and the violence associated with it.

The more you look at this proposal, the less coherent it seems.

Bailey’s proposal hopes to stop young Black men dying as a result of something he calls “polite” drug use. Would this policy do that?
It's the same argument: this doesn't have any basis in evidence or reason, because of the lack of evidence that there's a link between middle class drug use and the violence that's affecting young Black men.

If we want to do something effective about the death of young Black men in London, we'd be investing in youth services and we'd be trying to improve drug policies to become more supportive of people who are at risk of falling into problematic patterns that lead to frequent use of heroin and crack.

This proposal is the opposite of that, because it doesn't have any mechanism for providing support to those who are at risk of that problematic use. In fact, it's more likely to push them towards that pattern of abuse than away from it.

Bailey says, pretty conclusively, “There is no more effective way of stopping the creation of gangs than taking away the demand for drugs.” How true is that?
One way of tackling gangs would be to take away supply of drugs, but I doubt he's going to go down that line.

If one were to really want to reduce demand for drugs, one would not go about it by imposing workplace testing. One would do it by tackling poverty and inequality in London, and by investing in education and informal education through youth services. That would also have the benefit of reducing the temptations of entering gangs, and the violence associated with gangs.

This is a complex, deep-rooted social problem that can't be fixed with cosmetic suggestions, such as workplace drug testing. If we want to tackle the problems that affect young people in London, we need to invest in young people.