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Drug Testing News

Firms Offer Ways to Foil Drug Tests
Intensifying Efforts Spur Counterattack


By Martha McNeil Hamilton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 18, 2003

Type "beat the drug test" into an Internet search engine, and you come up with more than 100 Web sites devoted to helping foil workplace drug screening.

It's part of a technology race, or as Barry Sample, director of science and technology at Quest Diagnostics Inc.'s Corporate Health and Wellness division, puts it, a marathon, pitting those who would defeat the screening against those who conduct it.

The starting gun was a 1986 federal order establishing the goal of a drug-free federal workplace. In subsequent years testing spread to federal contractors and then into the private sector. "Now it's pretty ubiquitous," said Diane Cadrain, a lawyer who is legislative affairs director of the Human Resource Association of Central Connecticut.

Rolling right along with workplace testing was the development of a counter effort. "This is a cottage industry that has become increasingly more sophisticated over the years," said Robert L. Stephenson II, director of the division of workplace programs in the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's Center for Substance Abuse Prevention.

Both the testers and the would-be cheaters watch each other and try to reverse-engineer what the other side is doing, he said. One company says on its Web site that it changes the formula for chemicals to fool the drug-testing labs every six to nine months, he said.

Early attempts to alter drug-test results were fairly obvious and relied on products that were close at hand. And some of them still show up from time to time, said Lottie Johnson, drug program coordinator for the D.C. Department of Public Works, which requires drug tests for its truck drivers and heavy-equipment operators. "Sometimes you smell it. It's like, 'Okay, this is bleach,' " she said.

Products that pledge to beat the tests include shampoos that promise to wash away any sign of drug use from hair follicles, as well as synthetic urine, urine additives and detoxifying drinks or tablets with such names as "Fast Flush" and "Clean Green."

And then there is the Whizzinator. Ads for it offer a $150 device that straps on and comes with its own prosthetic penis (in five different skin hues), dehydrated drug-free urine and heat pads designed to produce a realistically warm urine sample, even under observation.

Sometimes product names remain the same, but the product is changed to keep up with new technology. Vendors may offer to replace older, now detectable, versions or warn buyers that product shelf life is less than a year.

According to Quest, drug testing is making inroads against drug use and against the use of adulterants to beat the tests. The company is one of the largest drug-test diagnostic firms, analyzing about 40 percent of all tests nationwide each year. Of 6.3 million tests it processed in 2001, 4.6 percent were positive, down from a high of 13.6 percent in 1988. The company also found that cases of adulterated samples were declining.

"There are two possible explanations," said Sample. "One is that testing for adulterants is having a deterrent effect." The other explanation, he said, "may be that the cheaters are finding a way around the tests. Maybe it's a little bit of both."

Testing for adulterants has been widespread only since about 1998, when the federal government issued standards of what constituted substituted, altered urine. The definitions were needed because the drug-screening industry realized that methods of beating the tests had become more sophisticated. Nitrites and other oxidants began to show up in samples, signaling that a chemical reaction had occurred.

Nine states have passed laws making cheating on such tests a criminal offense. Virginia's House minority leader, Franklin P. Hall (D-Richmond), whose legislative proposal became law in 2001, said he initiated it after business owners complained about seeing signs advertising ways to beat drug tests posted on telephone poles near their companies. He hasn't heard complaints since the law was passed, he said, "so I assume it must be working."

In Texas, which has had such a law on its books since 1991, two probationers in Bexar County were caught last year using the Whizzinator and sentenced to 180 days in jail. They were also required to pay a $2,000 fine.

Workplace drug testing pays, supporters say. A study by the Office of National Drug Control Policy estimated that the nation lost $110.5 billion in productivity in 2000 because of drug use, and the Labor Department estimates that 6.5 percent of full-time and 8.6 percent of part-time workers are illicit drug users. Marijuana is the most frequently detected drug, showing up in about 60 percent of the positive tests, followed by cocaine. Critics of the tests say that they pick up more marijuana users because the drug stays in the body longer, although Sample disagrees. "If you have a casual marijuana user who shares a joint or two, the detection time for that isn't much different than for cocaine or other agents," he said.

Critics fault widespread drug testing as an unnecessary invasion of privacy. While it makes sense to test people in safety-sensitive jobs for drug usage, many of the tests contribute little to improving either workplace safety or productivity, said Graham A. Boyd, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Drug Policy Litigation Project. Employers test anyway, he said, in an effort to reduce their workers' compensation and insurance costs.

"The fact that so many people are doing so much to subvert the system" suggests widespread disdain, he said. "You don't see that with laws about embezzlement because there is a shared moral code that embezzlement is bad. If you don't buy into that, you really are an outsider."