Today most of us are familiar with the concept of the "drug-free workplace." Drinking and drug use is banned on most job sites, many companies drug test their employees, and an entire office of the federal government (the Department of Labor's Drug Free Workplace Alliance) exists for no purpose other than to encourage companies to institute anti-drug programs for their employees. The message is clear: drugs and work do not mix.
But the history of drugs and labor in America has actually been much more ambiguous. While sentiments similar to those motivating the drug-free workplace movement can be traced back to the early years of the American republic, so too can instances of employers condoning or even encouraging certain drug use as a means of increasing worker productivity.
Before the rise of modern industrial capitalism in America, artisans manufactured goods in small workshops organized along the lines of Europe's medieval guilds. A master craftsman worked and usually lived right alongside his team of young apprentices, with the workshop functioning as a kind of all-male family. Among these artisans, it was common for master and apprentices to take a break from work every so often to share a drink of rum or hard cider, typically enjoying a dram or tankard right there on the shop floor. This tradition of communal workplace drinking surely slowed the workshops' economic output, but it also made the work more tolerable while strengthening the family—like social bond between master and apprentices.
By the 1820s, however, the Industrial Revolution had taken hold in much of America and the old-fashioned artisan workshop gave way to the modern capitalist factory. Men who would have been master craftsmen became factory bosses, while boys who would have been apprentices became wage laborers. The fraternal bonds of community cultivated by the old workshops were lost as industrial workforces divided into often-antagonistic classes of employers and employees. The new factories, organized to maximize production, had no use for workers taking a break to drink intoxicating liquor, and drunkenness on the job was banned as an impediment to industrial safety and efficiency. (It's worth noting here that the initial response of the workers, freed from the round-the-clock supervision of artisan masters by their transformation into wage laborers, was to embark upon an orgy of drunkenness outside the workplace. Americans in the late 1820s drank more than ever before or since. The social and economic costs of America's seeming transformation into a "nation of drunkards" led to the rise of a powerful temperance movement, and soon to a general expectation of sobriety for all workers.) In short, America's capitalist transformation meant that employers came to demand maximum productivity from their workers. And maximum productivity from workers meant that the traditional shop floor drink (to say nothing of the shop floor drunkard) had to go. Thus was the drug-free workplace born.
But just as alcohol was being eased out of the workplace, other drugs were being eased in. These new drugs, not coincidentally, tended to increase rather than decrease the productivity of the workers. The new workplace drugs—caffeine and nicotine foremost among them—helped workers endure the long hours and brutal conditions of wage labor in the early years of the Industrial Revolution. Workers in nineteenth-century factories often worked ten, twelve, or fourteen-hour shifts. They needed some way to sustain energy, suppress hunger, and maintain focus just to survive.
The Industrial Revolution began in Great Britain, and the British developed the first (and perhaps most famous) new tradition of industrial workplace drug use: teatime. By mid-afternoon, a worker might have already been on the job for six or eight hours, with another four or six still to go. A short rest and a cup of hot tea provided just the lift needed to make it to the end of the shift. Even the now-traditional British style of taking tea—with plenty of milk and sugar—served an important industrial purpose: the tea delivered a dose of stimulating caffeine, while the sugar provided a short-term energy boost and the protein in the milk helped to suppress the appetite. It seems strange to say it today, but teatime—something most of us now associate with old ladies and tea cozies—played an integral role in enabling the Industrial Revolution.
At some point most Americans lost the mother country's deep affection for tea, but on this side of the Atlantic coffee has long served much the same purpose. In this country, workers' coffee rituals never became quite as standardized as the Brits' 4pm teatime, but the coffee break—which was invented in 1952 as a marketing ploy by the Pan American Coffee Bureau—has become a ubiquitous feature of the workday in every American office and jobsite.
Caffeine is a legal drug that boosts worker productivity, and thus its use by workers has been not only condoned but actively encouraged by employers for two centuries. But caffeine is not the only drug used to help workers work harder, faster, or smarter. Other drugs—including some illegal drugs—serve the same purpose in many job-specific circumstances. Some long-haul truckers, who drive the lonely highways in ten-hour shifts, take amphetamines to keep from dozing off and wrecking their rigs. Some exhausted stockbrokers take Ritalin or cocaine to keep focused during hundred-hour workweeks. Some aging baseball players take steroids to keep hitting the home runs that keep fans coming to the ballpark. In all of these cases, governments have declared the productivity-boosting drugs to be illegal and employers have officially banned their use. Yet workers are rewarded for the artificially strong performance that these drugs enable, and society in general is at least partly complicit in demanding levels of productivity only made possible with chemical assistance. Can our society's goal of a drug-free workplace truly be reconciled with a simultaneous expectation that its truckers should be able to drive all-night shifts and its leftfielders should be able to hit 72 home runs in a season?