[Press & Publications] Government Policy on Drug Abuse in the Workplace Questioned



November 1999

No 199

The recently-published Government ten-year strategy for tackling drugs in the workplace may be focusing on the wrong areas, according to a new study carried out at the University of Leicester.

It found that occupational success of those who are in work does not seem to be significantly affected by any sort of drug use - a finding that has important implications for anti-drug policies.

The study, The Wages of Sin (details below), by Ziggy MacDonald and Steve Pudney, of the Public Sector Economics Research Centre at the University, uses data from the government's own British Crime Survey and Labour Force Survey to examine the impact of individuals' drug use on their risk of unemployment and their success at work.

The research is based on a nationally-representative sample of over 2,500 young men and women (aged 16 to 25), each classified according to their reported experience of hard and soft drug use. The authors relate this to sample information about their employed / unemployed status and, if in work, to their level of occupational achievement. The study reveals the expected "significant and large" association between past use of hard drugs and current unemployment.

The most surprising finding is that the occupational success of those who are in work does not seem to be significantly affected by any sort of drug use. In the analysis, occupational success was measured by average earnings within the individual's occupational group, based on a detailed breakdown of over 800 occupational categories. Hard drugs were defined to include dependency drugs such as heroin and crack cocaine, while the remaining soft drugs comprise mainly recreational drugs such as marijuana.

This finding has important implications for government anti-drug policy. The UK government and the Health and Safety Executive2 have recently emphasised the effects of drug misuse in the workplace and have encouraged drugs awareness among employers, including consideration of employer-administered drug screening and testing programmes. The research findings suggest that this emphasis may be unwarranted.

Ziggy MacDonald said: "The really serious impact of drug abuse is in terms of exclusion from employment, rather than impaired performance when in employment. Indeed, if drug tests become widely used as part of the recruitment process, the problem of exclusion from the labour market is likely to be worsened still further."

The study also highlights the shortcomings of existing official survey data relating to illicit drug use in the general population. There is a need for much better survey information, if public policy on drug abuse is to be based on an unprejudiced assessment of the impact of drug use.

Copies of the study have been sent to the UK Anti-drugs Co-ordinator, Mr Keith Hellawell and to the Home Office.

The wages of sin? Illegal drug use and the labour market by Ziggy MacDonald and Stephen Pudney, Discussion Papers in Public Sector Economics no. 99/6, Public Sector Economics Research Centre, Department of Economics, University of Leicester, Leicester, LE1 7RH, UK (downloadable from http://www.le.ac.uk/economics/research/discussion/recent-pserc.html)

Drug Misuse at Work: A Guide for Employers, HSE 1998.

Contact details: Mr Ziggy MacDonald, 0116 252 2894, Fax 0116 252 5351, abm1@le.ac.uk; Professor Steve Pudney, 0116 252 2887, Fax 0116 252 5351, sep2@le.ac.uk.


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