Academic journal article Public Personnel Management

Testing for Drugs: Bathrooms or Barbershops?

Academic journal article Public Personnel Management

Testing for Drugs: Bathrooms or Barbershops?

Article excerpt

Every day in the United States, thousands of public and private employees face the possibility of being handed a specimen cup and instructed to provide a urine sample for analysis as part of the continuing effort to produce drug-free work environments. Over a million urine samples per month are currently being processed by the five largest drug-testing labs in the country,(1) and recent court rulings will likely increase that number as more individuals are affected by drug testing requirements.

The abuse of drugs and alcohol is a serious societal problem. Estimates of dollar costs to the economy exceeded $100 billion in 1990, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.(2) As a result, many organizations both public and private, now require that their employees submit to a drug test. Unfortunately, some drug screening methods used by many organizations can be personally embarrassing and humiliating, leading to distrust and hostility between management and employees. Equally important, many drug testing programs can cost organizations additional money in laboratory and legal fees if not done properly. This article explores some of the issues involved in the current drug testing controversy, and examines a more recent technological innovation for detecting drug use by employees--hair analysis.

From the "Bathroom" to the "Barber Shop"

In an attempt to stop or prevent illegal drug use among employees, some organizations are advocating hair analysis as an alternative to the more invasive but widely accepted practice of urine testing, moving the focus of the drug screening controversy from the "bathroom" to the "barber shop".(3) Requiring employees to submit to urinalysis without either "probable cause" or some objective evidence of impaired job performance is generally construed by the courts as an unacceptable intrusion into the individual's right to privacy. But under certain circumstances, public safety concerns outweigh the privacy interests of the individual. Drug testing is typically allowed by the courts if a job meets certain criteria related to public safety or national security. For instance, workers in law enforcement and those in transportation industries, public and private, can now be legally subjected to random drug testing.

Hair Analysis: The Emerging New Technology

Urinalysis is still the most common method of drug testing, although blood or saliva tests and even brain scans are sometimes used. However, the emerging new technology in drug testing is the chemical analysis of hair samples, which is now being offered as a potentially more revealing alternative to the urine specimen.

According to laboratory analysis, drugs are deposited in hair while it grows, and the amount of the drug found in the hair directly correlates with the amount ingested. For example, hair analysis can distinguish between frequent, heavy users and occasional users of a drug, often reflecting subtle changes in an individual's drug use pattern. An analysis of a five-inch strand of hair can reportedly "give a month-by-month record of cocaine or other drug use reaching back nearly a year."(4) Conversely, urinalysis generally can detect most drugs only within a matter of hours or days after use, depending upon the individual and the trigger point established for a positive reaction by the specific test. Because head hair grows at approximately one-half inch per month, an analysis of the hair grown during a particular week or month makes it possible to determine whether drugs were used during that period.

Hair specimens are cut as close as possible to the scalp and subjected to radioimmunoassay analysis, a technique developed in 1977 by Dr. Warner Baumgartner and his wife Annette, both researchers in biochemistry.(5) The radioimmunoassay test (RIAH, that's "hair" spelled backwards) which took a decade to develop, requires only a one-and-a-half-inch-long snippet of hair taken from the scalp. …

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