Drug testing is an important regulation for many Americans under employment contracts. This is true across a spectrum of industries. Workers within a major corporations need to prove they are reliable, safe workers that uphold the principles of the company.
Nurses and medical workers cannot put lives at risk while under the influence. Police officers cannot appear to be above the law and must abide by drugs policies. Athletes and sports teams require regular drug testing to ensure that they are naturally gifted, worthy winners.
There are different ways to test these individuals, and one of the popular approaches these days is hair follicle drug testing. The problem is that while many see the potential of this methods, and the advancements made, there are also critics that highlight ongoing limitations.
What Is The Hair Follicle Drug Test?
Hair follicle drug testing is one of some different measures that workplaces and other companies can use to test for drug use. The most common method is still urine testing, but saliva tests and blood tests are also available in some cases. Some are also keen to look into breath testing as a form of reliable testing in roadside assistance.
Hair follicle testing requires a sample of hair from the head of the subject. They cut the hair, collect it and test it in the lab against the chosen drug panel. The chemicals in the lab strip down the small segments to reveal other chemicals embedded in the cortex of the hair. This is a useful way to determine both the type of drugs taken by an employee or suspect and the frequency of use.
Hair drug testing methods still evoke some strong feelings and a lot of controversies.
The popularity of the hair test among testers and employers led to increased use and called for new legislation. In fact, the law is about to change in West Virginia, where there is now the chance for mandatory employee testing, and Iowa, where hair drug testing is now permitted.
There may be some new laws in place to increase the use of this once “alternative” practice, but some still question its worth. This doubt is the result of some curious legal cases that highlight potential flaws in this seemingly ideal system.
The case of the Boston police force and the case of the nurse that was intimate with a cocaine user.
Two ongoing cases across the world shine a spotlight on hair drug testing and the need for ongoing advancements. The first is further afield in Melbourne, Australia. A nurse claims that positive test results for cocaine use were due to contact with bodily fluids during a night spent with a cocaine user.
The courts have dismissed the excuse, stating that this contact would not lead to the levels of drugs found in her hair and urine samples. Still, this raises questions over contamination of hair and secondary sources.
The second case is famous in America. A group of police officers in Boston found themselves dismissed from duty over positive hair follicle drug testing results. The officers challenge the results due to racial bias and discrimination against African-American civil servants. They also question the risk of contamination through exposure. The US Court of Appeals recently allowed the case to continue, adding more question marks to the approach.
There are two main issues here that are still to address with hair drug testing: race and contamination.
The issue of race is perhaps the biggest stumbling block with the hair follicle drug test right now. Questions have raged on about the bias in hair follicle testing for a long time now, not just because of this case with the Boston police force.
Workers and other individuals experiencing testing have long noticed that there are more positive and false positive on the hair types of African Americans. It seems that the chemicals embed into this hair more easily than the hair of Caucasian workers. Some suggest this is due to absorption rates via hair care products. This increases the chance of detection and also increases the window of time. Therefore, there is a higher chance of African Americans facing positive results and the appropriate repercussions.
Workplaces that carry out these tests correctly are often not exhibiting any form of racial bias themselves – although there are sure to be some examples. Instead, it is most often an unfortunate effect of the process. However, it is understandable that some people would suspect otherwise. Why wouldn’t the black cops in the force feel singled out when there is already so much prejudice and stereotyping?
The other clear issue with hair samples is contamination. Supporters and testers of this hair test promote its use because it is so difficult to tamper with a sample after collection. This means no contamination post-collection. The problem is that it is easy to contaminate the hair before collection. This is where we get these cases of positive results from apparently innocent parties that were merely in the vicinity of the drug.
It is important to note here that those that try and advice workers, and others experiencing testing, tend to warn them against any contact with fellow users and smoker before testing. There is the fear that second-hand smoke and chemicals transfer by contact could be enough to trigger a positive result.
Still, there are plenty of workplaces and agencies that see the potential of hair follicle drug testing for employees.
While there are cases that bring these current hair follicle drug testing practices into question, there are also stories of those calling for greater access. There are calls for truck drivers to face hair follicle testing, rather than urine testing. This is because of the increased chance of detecting any drugs in their system over the course of the route.
There is also the story of the Cronulla Sharks rugby team out of Australia, who want to implement hair tests for players in response to recent positive tests. This may be a long way from the typical workplace measures of American companies, but the ideas still apply.
This issue with the sports team may also set something of a precedent for teams and organizations in America. We have to remember that while urine testing is in question in workplace testing, this is still the preferred method in the sports industry.
Testers and officials want to know what recently entered the system that can affect the performance that day. It still won’t show any substances that athletes ingested in the week leading up to the event, or during training. Hair testing in sports teams can highlight the frequent recreational use of drugs – legal or illegal – that may affect the player and the reputation of the team. It may not be a replacement for standard testing, but rather an additional aid to a greater understanding of user behavior.
The reasons for this appreciation of the testing procedure remain the same as ever: long detection windows, easy collections, and broad panels.
To begin with, we have the benefit of the long testing window. The long window of detection of the hair sample remains the leading benefit of this method over other options.
Urine testing is helpful for all those employers that want to use random drug screening and post-incident drug screening to determine the possible impact of illegal drugs on the performance of employees. However, the three-day detection window means that it is easy for users to plan when they know of tests that are soon to take place.
Hair follicle drug testing offers an insight into a long period based on the length of the sample and the growth of the hair. This could mean months of data of drug use, potentially catching habitual users and reducing the risk of deception. This is ideal for pre-employment screening.
The Ease Of Collection
This idea of deception also continues with the way that testers collect samples. Ongoing improvements in the procedure of hair follicle drug testing can only decrease these chances further. In fact, there is the clear idea that drug users are catching onto these improvements as it is harder than ever to cheat the system.
There are always those sites out there that promise the best tips and product for all those that want to fail the test. It used to be that users could strip the hair a little bit with a tough shampoo, stop using for a few days and increase their chances. Now it is clear that this is not enough.
Drug testers see through these chemical solutions and can still reach chemicals deeply embedded into the hair. The solutions promise to be stronger than ever because the seller knows that they need something potent to get the best results. There is that much confidence from some people in the potential of the hair follicle drug test, even with the risk of contamination and racial bias.
Increased Drug Panels
Finally, there is the benefit of improved drug panels and detection rates in hair follicle drug testing. This is the area that many labs are most proud of. They are all competing to provide the best results and value for money for their clients. The best way to do this is via professional services that can detect as many drugs and possible.
The drug panels for the hair follicle test are impressive and become increasingly complex as they detect rare and complex chemical signatures. There is even ongoing research into the detection of synthetic drugs and legal highs.
The industry and courts still appear to be a little on the fence about this process, but progress must continue.
Either way, there is a clear need for an overhaul of the system with increased use of recreational and medicinal marijuana. The use of marijuana in society has changed significantly, and this revolution of its use is set to continue for a while to come.
The acceptance of medicinal marijuana was a major step forward for those that use the drug for pain relief and other aids. More and more states are open to this approach. Then there are those that are now open to the regulated use of recreational marijuana. In fact, more states have some form of legal marijuana than those that don’t.
This acceptance and increased uses have to lead to something of a headache for law enforcement and employers. Drug driving and working under the influence are still major issues to health and safety. There is the chance that more people will drive and operate machinery with some level of marijuana in their system. There is little to help regarding prosecutions until there are clearer legal limits.
Employers still have the right to test worker for illegal, legal or medicinal marijuana use, regardless of the state. They need to be sure they have a safe, productive and responsible workforce, and they need the best screening methods to do this.
Is hair testing the process of the future that people once assumed it was? Or, will urine testing continue to be the preferred method?
It is easy to see the progress of hair follicle drug testing in the US as a case of one step forward and two steps back. A state permits the use of the system for drug testing. The Court of Appeals continues to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the process and racial bias. There are interesting ideas in support of hair testing in certain industries and cases. The best evidence and ideas seem to come from overseas – with two exciting developments in Melbourne alone.
There is a long way to go with the advancement of hair follicle drug testing. There are some definite improvements to the system regarding the drugs detected, the risks of false positive and tampered samples and the detection window. Still, many companies and individuals are sure to remain cautious while there is still the issue of contamination. The best approach, for now, appears to be a dual process.
An initial hair follicle drug test in situations where it would appear to be most helpful, and follow-up urine or blood samples to confirm the results in cases of habitual use.
In the end, it still appears that there isn’t one surefire, best approach to drug testing in America – in particular with the potential for the breath test in the future. Instead, it is all about providing the right test, and the right time, with the best procedure and professional testers.