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Debate: Mandatory drug testing for public officials

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Should continued office for public officials be dependent on (successfully) taking a drug test?

Background and context

This requirement is already in place in the Philippines, where the Commission on Elections requires candidates for both national and local positions to submit a drug test certificate. Many candidates fail to do so. The requirement also applies to Presidential elections. No person can undertake office until he has undergone the mandatory test and submitted the certificate as proof of this. Failure to keep the requirement can result in imprisonment of up to four years. Random drug tests for politicians were also introduced in Louisiana but in 2000, the US Supreme Court upheld a ruling in which the policy was struck down by the state’s court, effectively ending the policy in the USA. It has been seriously discussed by politicians in the Northern Territory (Australia), where a bill proposing it was drawn up in 2003, but is yet to be put into law.

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Argument #1

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Yes

Drugs are illegal. Holders of public office and those elected to power should set an example by demonstrating that they do not break the law. We have a right to hold our leaders to a higher standard. And if they are breaking the law, the public is entitled to know about it.

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No

Of course drugs are illegal. But nobody else has to take these tests as part of their job – why single out a certain group? Public officials are only human and misbehaviour in their private lives should have no bearing on their performance in office. And what about campaigners for drug legalisation - a perfectly legitimate political position which might be denied elected advocates under this harsh rule?

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Argument #3

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Yes

It’s not an unreasonable search if it’s made a condition of office that’s accepted as one takes up one’s post.

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No

Testing without grounds for suspicion is an unwarranted intrusion. In the USA, this would be considered an ‘unreasonable search' and it surely runs against the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights' sections on privacy. As with all such intrusions into people's private lives, it is likely to meet resistance and alienate people from politics and the state, especially the young.

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Argument #2

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Yes

Politicians make decisions for all of us, and spend our money. We are entitled to take steps to prevent them from doing so under the influence of drugs! Results may well not show in their work until it’s too late to do anything about it. It may well be the case that we see a politician has done badly whilst negotiating a trade agreement, and, looking into it, we discover that he is taking drugs. But why not solve the problem before this happens, by testing everyone periodically?

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No

Drugs affect four groups of people. Firstly, it affects people who aren’t taking drugs. Those people are needlessly intruded upon by testing. Secondly, it affects people who are taking drugs, but it doesn’t affect their work. Why do we care, since it doesn’t affect their work? Thirdly, there are people who are taking drugs and it shows as their work is worse. We don’t need tests to show this, since we can see the result in their work and they can be sacked or voted out of office. Lastly, there are those with a real problem – those that are taking drugs and it affects them so badly that they can’t work. They’re not affected by workplace testing – since they’re not at work in the first place.

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Argument #4

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Yes

We are entitled to know about the actions of politicians in their private lives. Moral values inform the way that many people vote. Hypocrisy is a terrible thing and we’re entitled to know if our leaders are guilty of it. Furthermore, this isn’t strictly private since it’s not about establishing moral probity or social preference – it’s about demonstrating a lack of illegality. Surely we can ask our politicians, who make our laws, to keep them?

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No

Politicians, like everyone else, should be judged by their actions and the quality of their service, not by their private lives. If we have drug testing for elected office, why not also test them for alcohol abuse - a much bigger problem with most middle-aged or elderly men. Why not give them IQ tests to ensure our legislators are not too stupid to decide on our laws? Why not spy on them to see if they are faithful to their partners, or break the speed limit, or fill in their tax returns correctly, etc.?

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Argument #5

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Yes

If testing for drugs puts some people off standing for office that is a good thing – such people weren’t fit for public service in the first place.

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No

Make public life more oppressive than private life and the best candidates won’t serve. They’ll go to industry and commerce, where they’ll make much more money without any of the hassle.

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Argument #6

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Yes

Modern testing is much more reliable than the opposition implies. Even if this is the case, at least most drugs will be caught – and tests quickly catch up, meaning people will never be certain that they’re safe. Indeed people do try to find out when the test is going to happen – but that’s an argument in favour of more secretive, randomised testing, rather than an argument against testing at all.

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No

Tests often return ‘false positives’ and give negative results for actual abusers. Also, tests inevitably miss the latest drugs, creating a false sense of security about people that may well nevertheless be taking illegal substances. People often find out when they’re going to be tested and tailor their drug taking accordingly.

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