I used to work in the IT department of a major medical device manufacturer. This company had huge contracts with the US Army to supply mobile surgical hospital field units for our soldiers in Iraq (think of our products as Hawkeye’s supply store for a modern M*A*S*H*). We made stuff as serious as heart monitors and defibrillators and as trivial as thermometers and those light-beaming thingies they look in your ear with.
Our IT department was a subcontracted unit, so that the medical device manufacturer (let’s call them MedCo) didn’t have to take us on as full-time employees with things like health care benefits, retirement benefits, and a competitive pay. So the disadvantage was being treated like a contractor, but the advantage was not having to pee test.
I was just the Desktop Support geek, which means my job was to build PCs, install software, troubleshoot application problems, and be the go-to guy for digitally-ignorant workers on the floor who’d do something like mis-file data on the network, request data from tape backup, or wonder where the “any” key was. Every day I arrived at work up to 30 minutes early, it was rare that I’d take a lunch away from my desk, and rarer still that I’d leave work at 5:00. Reviews from my supervisor were outstanding and the staff of MedCo loved me. Of my own volition I completed three different IT projects that saved MedCo hundreds of thousands of dollars. I was what you’d call a stellar contractor.
And then, after work, I’d go home and smoke big fat bowls of some of Oregon’s finest cannabis.
Meanwhile, there was my Network Administrator (NA) and my Desktop Administrator (DA). These were guys in their twenties who were absolute IT geniuses, no doubt about it. However, it was rare that they would ever show up to work on time. Lunches were at least ninety minutes and both of them would enjoy at least one fine Portland microbrew with lunch (DA was much more guilty of this – you could smell it on him). Never were they still at work when I left after 5:00.
One Labor Day weekend we had a major IT rollout to accomplish. The rest of the building was empty and we were to make an upgrade to all 300+ desktops and laptops in the building. Not only did NA and DA enjoy beer at lunch that day, but they brought back a twelve-pack and enjoyed drinking them as they walked about the building rebooting machines.
I couldn’t count the number of times DA called in sick or late to work with a hangover, or made mistakes I later cleaned up because he was working hung over.
Time passed and soon MedCo decided it was selling its IT contract to IBM, who would be bringing in their own people – that is, we would no longer have a job. However, being the stellar well-loved contractor that I was, one of the tech departments at MedCo wanted to poach me from the contractor and turn me into a full-time employee.
The problem was that I would have to take a pee test.
Now, to that moment, I had always been anti-pee test. ”Pee for enjoyment, not for employment” was my mantra. But, I was getting older. I’m married. My wife wants security and a nice big house. We need real health care and retirement plans. And MedCo is waving a six-figure salary, company car and expense account, gold-plated health coverage, up to 20% employer-matched 401k plan, paid vacation and sick leave, and all-expenses paid first class travel to MedCo’s customer’s locations to test hardware.
So I told myself I could not smoke for three weeks, drink lots of water and use creatine and B vitamins, and pass the one-time pee test, then be financially secure for life! It’s worth it, right? Turns out, though, that the drug test wasn’t a pee test. They wanted my hair.
This would present a problem, though, because at the time I was shaving my head due to male pattern baldness and vanity. ”Where will they take my hair?” I asked the HR rep while crossing my hands over my crotch. ”Oh, no,” she said, “not there! They’ll take some of your chest or armpit hair.”
I know that the not smoking and drinking water wouldn’t be much help on a hair test that can detect past use for months. Desperately I scanned the internet looking for ways to pass a hair test. I found a shampoo regimen that would supposedly help. All I had to do was use this bottle of pre-shampoo for cleaning, then soak my hair in white wine vinegar for twenty minutes to soften the hairs, then use this other bottle of cleansing shampoo and keep it on for thirty minutes. Of course, it’s not the hair on my head I’m soaking, so I literally bought twenty gallons of white wine vinegar and submerged my body in it for twenty minutes in order to soak my chest and armpit hair. Mmm, a bath in room-temperature vinegar, what fun!
The day of my test I arrive at a set of seven white Greek-columned buildings named after our former presidents Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, Madison, Adams, etc. The building where I had to sign in for the drug test was Washington and the test was performed in Jefferson. Two hemp farmers. Oh, the irony.
In the Jefferson building I’m greeted by a clerk who tells me to wait in a chair. As I wait, I notice the office is being remodeled and there are all sorts of construction types stepping in and out. Soon, a woman calls for me and leads me into an office. Now this is no sort of medical office, where you’d expect a brightly-lit room with a shelf with a glass jar of tongue depressors or cotton swabs in it, some medical prints on the wall, and that padded bench with the sanitary paper rolled across it. No, this is like a pre-fab construction-trailer office with a desk and bad wood paneling.
This woman, who did not identify herself as a doctor, nurse, or medical assistant, who wore no name badge or recognizable uniform, had me sit in the office and commanded me to remove my shirt. The window across the room is open with no shade and looks out into the courtyard. I took off my shirt and she reached into a drawer in the desk and pulled out a single-bladed disposable razor, the kind you buy five-to-a-pack at the dollar store, but it wasn’t in the pack or sealed in anyway save the little plastic safety cover you pull off the front of the blade. In other words, I have no way of verifying it is a sanitary blade – but it matched the non-medical standards of this office perfectly.
She had me raise my arms and began shaving the hair off my armpit. As this is happening, one of the construction guys knocks on the door. She says, “Yes?” and he opens the door and asks some inane questions about the remodel… while I’m sitting there fat and shirtless and she’s shaving my pits! He leaves and for good measure, she shaves off my chest hair for collection, too.
After all that, I failed the drug test for inactive THC-COOH metabolites.
I explained my position to the HR director. I am a medical marijuana caregiver, I told them. Twice a month I aid over 250 registered patients in the administration of cannabis. I am in a room with a lot of cannabis smoke. I help to harvest cannabis and get lots of sticky resin on my skin. (All of this is true – I just didn’t add the part about me smoking fat bowls.) She seemed as sympathetic as she could be and there was pressure from the MedCo tech department to do what it takes to get me on payroll before they lose me as an employee (I believe my lack of college degree also meant they were going to get me for a steal of a deal.)
So they allowed me to go take a second test, this time a urine test, and if I came up clean on this one, they’d hire me on probation, to take another test in six month. I hadn’t been smoking in three weeks by this time, except for the one bowl I smoked right after the hair test embarrassment. One bowl in three weeks, I figured I’d get back on the water and cranberry juice and B vitamins and creatine and all would be good.
Then I took that test (at Jefferson bldg again) and passed. Unfortunately, I passed too well. They said my urine was too dilute. I asked what that meant. They said it looks like I’ve been drinking a lot of water in order to pass the drug test. I asked what “a lot of water” was. They said eight to twelve glasses a day. I replied, “isn’t that what health experts say we should be drinking at a minimum?”
As I protested losing this opportunity, I pointed out my work history, my skills, my punctuality, my dedication. How could a failed hair test tell you more about those categories than my actual performance over the past two years? She retreated into the avoid-lawsuits-HR-speak: I could be a danger, we have federal contracts, somehow me smoking a joint on a weekend and coming to work sober to fix Excel spreadsheets for the receptionist might lead to a soldier in Afghanistan losing his life because of a programming defect in a defibrillator or some such wankery.
As fate would have it, losing that job was the best thing that ever happened to me. It is the moment I became a cannabis activist – the day when my brain and skills and reputation and work history meant less to a company than the composition of my armpit hair. It led to me resoubling my efforts with Oregon NORML, which led to National NORML Conferences, which led to meeting Chris Goldstein, which led to me doing this job for a living, which pays a whole lot less, but the fringe benefits are awesome and my new employers love all of me, even my armpit hair.
To this day, when I hear companies clamoring for drug testing as a way to improve safety, productivity, and responsibility, I think back to me as the safest, most productive and responsible member of my IT team, rejected for my armpit hair, while my hard-drinking hungover superiors were never even questioned. (They didn’t stay on with MedCo, by the way. They now work for a major Portland-metro-area hospital, where I’m sure their use of hard liquid drugs will be no danger at all.)