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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
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
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
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
"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
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
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."