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Drug Testing News
Hair tests for "drugs" have become more popular
January 19, 1998
Hair tests for "drugs" have become more popular because they
are supposedly harder to beat than urine tests and can
determine use months prior to the test and are thus even less
relevant to on the job performance. In addition, coarse black
hair holds "drug" residues longer than thin blond hair. This
has the added advantage of increasing the power of the state
" It's a major problem" warned J. Michael Walsh, executive
director of the President's Drug Advisory Council under
Presidents Reagan and Bush and now a consultant to the
urinalysis industry." From the perspective of those like
Walsh, whose focus is on middle class marijuana use this
indeed can be a problem. Also they show hard drug use that
would be missed by urine tests. However, they do not detect
any use in the last week.
About 20 million Americans undergo drug tests each year,
according to the Institute for a Drug-Free Workplace, a
Washington-based prohibitionist lobby. The majority are job
applicants without rights of appeal.
About 80 percent of companies that test for drugs rely solely
on urine, and only 2 percent use hair. One reason is legality.
Urine tests have universal acceptance in courts, while
skepticism about the science behind hair tests persists. The
other reason is politics. Employers, state regulators and
courts want approval from federal public-health experts before
they go ahead with hair testing. And the regulators remain
skeptical. To date, "hair analysis for the presence of drugs
is unproven, unsupported by scientific literature or
controlled trials," Food and Drug Administration spokes-woman
Sharon Snider said.
Hair tests are becoming more popular. That's partly because
the tests turn up more drug users than urinalysis and counter
some of urine testing's shortcomings. Also important are
sustained lobbying and marketing efforts by Psychemedics Corp.
of Cambridge, Mass, which dominates the hair-testing market.
A decade ago, Psychemedics' biggest customers were Nevada
casinos. Today, they include Anheuser-Busch, the Federal
Reserve System and General Motors. Florida entrepreneur H.
Wayne Huizenga, founder of Blockbuster Entertainment, gets
much of the credit. He led a group of investors that bought
Psychemedics out of debt in 1989. With Blockbuster as a
mainstay customer, the firm grew to more than 750 clients,
according to its 1996 Securities and Exchange Commission
filings. (Huizenga sold Blockbuster, he is now the nation's
largest used car salesman.)
In that year, Florida legislators, pushed by Huizenga's
lobbyists, (He owns the Dolphins.) approved hair testing in
the state. The law grandfathered Psychemedics' patented
hair-testing process and set high hurdles for future
competitors. By the end of 1997, according to company general
counsel William Thistle, Psychemedics had 1,000 clients.
Thistle and other Psychemedics executives insist patented
methods are unbiased and produce no "false positives" from
innocent drug exposure. If hair testing were to supplant urine
testing for drugs, Thistle ventured in an interview, from
three to 10 times more illicit drug users would be caught. The
result could be a new epoch in the nation's drug-war history:
"Drug users wouldn't be employed," Thistle said flatly, "or
they'd be in rehabilitation programs."
"Hair testing may turn out to have a complementary role in
workplace testing," said Robert Stevenson, deputy director of
the Workplace Programs Division of the federal Center for
Substance Abuse Prevention. "But we have yet to resolve
remaining questions about its fairness and the ability to
interpret results consistently."
Using scheduled urine tests, the New York City Police
Department caught one drug abuser in seven year, according to
a published report. In the first 18 months of random hair test
by Psychemedics, more than 30 NYPD employees tested positive.
In another comparison, involving 774 job applicants to
Steelcase Corp., a Michigan furniture maker, urinalysis tests
were 2.7 percent positive. Psychemedics hair tests on the same
applicants were 18 percent positive. But hair testing also has
its flaws. It can't catch recent drug use the way urine tests
can, because traces of ingested drugs take about five to seven
days to show up in hair. On the other hand, hair tests can
detect drug use within 90-day period.
In the real world, one would hope that African American
leaders would object to these tests on obvious grounds, but on
the other hand, they would take some of the focus off of
marijuana. (There is one "easy" way to beat these tests, but
it may itch a little and be a little drafty in the winter.)