Broadway had its production of Hair, a commentary on Sixties hippie culture. Mythology had the story of Samson, a parable about power derived from a strongmans flowing mane. Now, 90s employers have clip and ship, the hot, new method for weeding out substance abusers from the workplace by chemically testing samples of hair.
Less invasive than blood or urine samples, hair samples, while moderately more expensive, are also more effective in catching substance abusers at the workplace. It has an additional attraction: The underground user community, which disseminates information about how to mask ones drug use, has had less time to react to this method. Hair testing has been around since the mid-80s, but has only caught on in the last couple of years.
Behind the rise of hair testing is the gradually escalating game of cat-and- mouse between substance abusers and employers bent on stopping them, or at least weeding them out of the workplace. Local drug-testing collection points, for instance, have been burglarized by substance abusers intent on planting jars of someone elses drug-free urine in ceiling panels, which they then offer as their own the following day. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML, actively counsels its members on how to beat the bladder cops. In a document distributed on the Web, How to Piss and Pass, the activist group cautions that drinking vinegar before a test wont work. Dont rely on the ibuprofen alibi, it further advises. And if you are using a friends urine, be sure you know what drugs they have taken over the last month.
Thats merely one voice amid a cacophony of advice on how to beat the system. There are 90,000 Websites on how to fool a urine test, says Bob Drusendahl, president of Pre-Check Co., a 7-year-old Lakewood-based concern that performs pre-employment screening for clients. As a former college athlete himself, he remembers substance-abusing track-and-field teammates who nevertheless successfully evaded NCAA-administered urine tests by staying up all night, drinking tea. It was probably the hydration more than the tea, he says today.
Employer drug-testing overall has grown enormously, says Diane Younghans, marketing manager for toxicology for Nevada-based Associated Pathologists Labs, one of the countrys leading drug-testing concerns. But we have seen monumental growth in the last couple of years in hair testing. Employers understand that employees are beating the systems, and theyre frustrated. List price, per-employee, for such tests: $41.50 from the lab (though employers can generally expect to pay more by purchasing the service through local suppliers). According to Younghans, You catch 50 percent or more people with hair testing than you do on blood or urine tests.
The test, which Drusendahl drolly describes as clip and ship, is pretty straightforward. Human hair grows at a rate of about an inch a month, and thus to get a 90-day history of drug use, an inch and a half sample of 120 strands of hair are collected from subjects.
When performed properlywith documents signed and accounted for by the signature of witnesses, and the entire contents placed under sealthe procedure establishes a chain of custody over the snipped locks that is legally defensible, should the results be challenged in court. In addition, APL has a board-certified toxicologist on staff who stands ready to testify in court in the event of legal challenge.
Test results come back in two or three days. While most of the focus has been on pre-employment screening, under Ohio law employers who choose to randomly test existing employees must have written policies to that effect in place at least 90 days before commencing the tests.
Of course, the tactical games between users and employers wont end with hair testing (nor with the next generation of tests on sweat and saliva). Drusendahl likens that war of nerves to an intelligence test. Drug tests are the equivalent of IQ tests because people who are serious about substance abuse know how to adulterate, he says. The newest weapon considered by some is to simply shave their heads. Not a problem, Drusendahl says. We can take a sample from their armpits. And what if the scofflaw pothead shaves his armpits? hes asked
He flashes a brief, devilish smile. We just keep going south.