Whether it’s a regular workplace occurrence or takes place after an arrest, there are several practical and ethical problems associated with drug testing.

One of the most common tests is done on hair to detect the presence of cocaine. Unfortunately, the effectiveness of this is by no means perfect and has been debated hotly for years. The test was first developed in the 1960s by a chemist studying exposure to toxins during a space shuttle launch. Because substances in the blood eventually get incorporated into the hair as it grows (either through small blood vessels or the oil and sweat glands that surround the hair follicle), any substances that had been in the bloodstream would show up in a strand of hair. The drugs found inside the hair itself last longer in the sample than in urine, and it’s harder to fake a test on hair.

In 1993, a Navy Chemist studied the effectiveness of the test by soaking the hair in a mix of cocaine derivative and water and then washing it repeatedly before performing the drug test. Despite the fact that he had washed away the external contaminants, tests on the hair came back positive. This, he argued, showed that simply being near a substance without using it could lead to a false test that would impact the rest of a person’s life.

In one case, a woman applying to the Boston police department got a positive result on a hair test, even though she had never used cocaine. She argued that the use of the test was discriminatory because it was more likely to result in a positive result for black people (or anyone with black hair). Cocaine binds to melanin in the hair, and people with black hair have more melanin. The officer did eventually make it onto the police force, although arguments about the discriminatory nature of the test are still ongoing. There can also be differences in hair according to gender and age, and whether it has been chemically treated.

The hair test isn’t the only one that’s problematic. When you’re pulled over or otherwise detained by police, they can do a drug test on your car or items in your possession. Similarly, some workplaces do spot-checks with random urine screenings. These tests, however, aren’t definitive in themselves. They simply give a lab a better idea of what to search for when a comprehensive test is run, and often the pre-tests will have inaccurate results. There have been cases of Sudafed and Adderall being mistaken for meth, or ibuprofen for marijuana. In one case in Pittsburgh, a woman had her newborn child taken away when she tested positive for heroin – it turned out that she had eaten a poppyseed bagel, which causes a false positive. This is common enough that federal prisoners, who undergo drug tests frequently, are forbidden to eat foods that contain poppy seeds.

If you or a loved one need help to quit drugs or alcohol, consider Asana Recovery. We offer medical detox, along with both residential and outpatient programs, and you’ll be supervised by a highly trained staff of medical professionals, counselors, and therapists. Call us any time at (949) 438-4504.



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