Legislating Under the Influence

The new Drug Demand Reduction Act contains a provision that may violate new drivers’ right to privacy.

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.

The MoJo Wire would like to ask you to disregard the cigar for a moment and consider the blunt. Congress surely is.

On September 16, as the nation was consumed by the Lewinsky affair, the U.S. House of Representatives quietly passed H.R. 4550, or the Drug Demand Reduction Act, by a vote of 369-9. The Act, authored by Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), is aimed at reducing illegal drug use, largely through media campaigns.

However, it also provides a “model program” which, if implemented, would require teens and other first time drivers to pass a drug test in order to obtain a driver’s license — a move seen by some as unconstitutional.

Buried amongst the volume’s verbiage of vacuity lies “Section 122: Model Program.” It dictates that within one year of the bill’s passage into law the Secretary of Transportation must establish a model program to provide for the voluntary drug testing of all teenage applicants for a driver’s license. The bill also includes language that encourages states to drug-test all first-time applicants for a driver’s license, regardless of age.

One of the elements of Section 122 states that:

[I]nformation respecting an applicant’s choice not to take a drug test under the program or the result of a drug test on the applicant will be made available to the applicant’s automobile insurance company, if any, or the parent of a teenage applicant, or both, as determined by a State that adopts the program.”

In other words, you don’t even have to test positive to get nailed by this law. If you’re a teenager who wants a driver’s license, and you opt not to take a drug test, Uncle Sam is going to tell your insurance company.

While insurance companies may appreciate the government’s friendly help, civil liberties experts think it’s a violation of the right to privacy.

Says Solange Bitol, legislative counsel for the ACLU, “It’s critical that parents impress upon young people that driving is a privilege, not a right. However, this is a gross infringement on a young person’s right to privacy. I don’t think it’s constitutional. I guess they [Congress] don’t realize people have the right to privacy — one of those oversights that can be easily remedied by reading the Constitution.”

The National Motorists Association, also opposes the legislation. According to Jim Baxter, president of the NMA, the organization opposes the law because it affects drivers for non-driving related issues. “I see nothing in this law that says the company has to charge the family more money [if a driver refuses the test],” says Baxter. “But conversely, companies that are looking for ways to shed this type of business [young and first time drivers] might use it as an excuse to avoid providing insurance for young people. They might also use something like this to get the states to allow a universal surcharge for anyone who refuses to take the test.”

The history of the plan

Oddly enough, the Republican plan had its genesis in President Clinton’s own murky past involvement with illegal drugs. In an attempt to combat Bob Dole’s characterization of him as being soft on drugs during the 1996 campaign, Clinton proposed to test the urine of driver’s license applicants under the age of 18. The plan didn’t go anywhere. Now Clinton’s idea has been resurrected by a team of Republican congressmen, led by Portman.

Why Portman? He has sponsored a number of anti-drug laws — and the insurance industry gave Portman $10,250, making it the third largest contributor to his re-election campaign last year. Chris Marston, spokesman for Rep. Portman, says that the bill was written entirely independent of any insurance industry influence. Marston said the bill included the line about notifying insurance companies “to create an incentive for people to take the drug test.”

Will it work?

Fortunately, the law is mostly toothless. There are no penalties if a state ignores the law. As for incentives, the law calls for the Secretary of Transportation to start a model program, but doesn’t provide for any specific amounts of money, or designate a state for it to occur in.

If the law is fully implemented, will it reduce teen drug use? “Of course not,” says Chuck Thomas, communications director of the Marijuana Policy Project. “It is not a performance test, it’s a stupidity test,” said Thomas, noting that teens who do use drugs merely need to abstain for two weeks prior to testing in order to pass. “In terms of doing anything that will affect safety, it does nothing whatsoever.”


Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend