Last updated: November 23, 2020
There are many different reasons for employers to drug test their employees, but one thing is clear—those employers do have a legal right to require such testing. Drug use proponents can and have argued against screening, but the matter has been settled repeatedly. The bottom line is that there is no law that restricts the ability of employers to drug test their workers, and they perform drug tests when they feel that conspicuous drug use among the workers would lead to a health risk or would negatively affect the business.
Many people are unsure exactly why employers are permitted to require that their employees take drug tests regularly. After all, doesn’t the Fourth Amendment prohibit unreasonable searches? It’s true that the Fourth Amendment contains language about searches, most often used to justify requiring the use of warrants for police searches, as an example. However, like many other parts of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the Fourth Amendment describes the relationship between the American people and their government.
In other words, it does not place any restrictions on the relationship between American citizens and their employers, as long as those employers are in the private sector and not a part of the government. Employers have the right to test their workers or interviewees for drugs because the Fourth Amendment does not apply to them. Similarly, the workers are under no obligation to keep working for a certain employer—they can leave if they want, or decline the interview. That is why employers have the right to test for drugs. This covers legal use of marijuana. Just because a drug is legal in the state does not mean employers have to allow use of a drug still illegal on the federal level.
The motivation for drug testing is complex, and varies depending on the job. There are some fields, like construction, where workers who are under the influence of alcohol or any drugs, even prescribed ones, can put themselves or others at serious risk. Operating heavy machinery requires a person’s full attention, and intoxication can make it impossible to give the job that attention. As a result, testing positive for intoxication at a job like that is often grounds for termination.
Other jobs work differently. Instead of just being a threat to the health of the workers, drugs are a threat to the health of the business itself. For example, in retail jobs where the worker faces the customer directly, any evidence of intoxication can lead to a lost sale and might drive away customers. That’s something the employer wants to avoid, so preemptive tests for drugs screen out unfit applicants in the employer’s eyes. Any worker who seems drunk or high in front of the customers is hurting the image of the business, because he is the face of the company to those customers. As long as the criteria set are consistent among all employees, it’s legal.
Drug testing is controversial because some people view it as an invasion of privacy, but there is nothing illegal about it. Most companies use it to minimize risk to their business in liability and profit. Unfortunately for opponents of legal drug testing, it is not the result of some personal crusade against drugs by company managers. Even legal drug consumption can lead to failing a drug test and dismissal from the position, so it might be worth considering whether it’s worth exercising your personal liberty over that of your employer, on the clock or off.