Julian Buchanan

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Drug Testing: Misleading Simplicity Masking Complex Issues


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The Wider Social Context

Our sophisticated techy gadgets, gismos and latest ‘apps’ make life easier, simpler and quicker. Our technology driven society monitors, measures and controls almost every aspect of daily life. The Internet tracks our lifestyle, values and interests, bar codes scan our shopping habits, CCTV cameras our movement, GPS/mobile phones track our precise location – this mass of data provides greater surveillance, knowledge and certainty for a world with an insatiable appetite for the measurable, tangible and controllable.

But the real world is not so certain or quantifiable; it is blurred, complex and messy. The apparent ‘evidence’ and ‘facts’ we possess are more contested than we would like to acknowledge. The trend to simplify social problems is both seductive and dangerous. In recent decades there has been a growing tendency to stifle debate on complex issues to reduce discussion to simple binary opposites, such as, ‘you are either for us, or against us’.

In respect of recreational drug use, this resulted in a crude unscientific bifurcation, in which unapproved substances (such as LSD, heroin, cannabis and cocaine) are presented as dangerous, immoral and likely to lead to addiction, whereas approved and promoted substances (such as caffeine, alcohol and tobacco) risks are minimised and use is normalised, indeed rarely are they even considered as ‘drugs’. Despite the mounting evidence concerning the risks posed by these state approved and promoted drugs, alongside the relative safety, by comparison, of some illicit drugs, the over-simplistic misinformed binary approach dominates law, policy and practice.

People who regularly enjoy state approved drugs take offence at being considered a ‘drug user’. If they develop physical, social and psychological problems with legal drugs are never referred to as ‘addicts’, junkies or problem drug users. Despite the fact that more people are killed by tobacco and alcohol than all the other illegal drug deaths combined, it is illicit drugs that will not be tolerated and drug testing is a key weapon to deter and eradicate the use of unapproved drugs.

 

The Appeal of the Drug Test

Legal and illegal drugs can for a small proportion of people result in serious health and social problems – in rare cases with devastating and fatal consequences. It is understandable that a concern to prevent such tragedies creates an interest in a possible role for drug testing. The technology appears to offer some tempting evidence and insight. There are a growing number of companies selling a wide range of equipment to test saliva, hair, perspiration, blood and urine for a variety of drugs. It’s a burgeoning industry with strong connections with law enforcement, often managed by ex-police officers.

Drug testing has long history of use with the substitute prescribing, initially used for safety reasons to ensure that people issued with a clean legal supply of opioids had actually been using opiates. However, some prescribing regimes continue to use drug testing on its long term patients, as a punitive tool to impose sanctions for any on-going use of illicit street drugs.

More recently drug-testing technology has been incorporated as a central tenet of Drug Courts and positive tests invariably lead to warnings, breach and sometimes short periods of imprisonment. Drug testing has become popular with some employers – a positive result may lead to suspension or termination from employment. Some countries (like USA and New Zealand) drug test welfare benefit claimants and stop payments if the person continues to test positive for illegal drugs. In some countries, like Sweden, drug testing is used in schools and colleges, in the USA parent groups advocate randomly drug-testing their children – there appears to be an endless range of circumstance when a drug test may ‘apparently’ prove useful.

When faced with a complicated situation of determining and responding appropriately to drug misuse a positive drug test appears to offer conclusive proof – clear evidence upon which straight talking and tough sanctions can be imposed. This measurable and quantifiable certainty of a drug test, in an era dominated by ‘punitive populism’ and simplistic approaches must have appeal, but sadly it can also undermine any attempt to engage effectively with the complexity of the issue, indeed it can do more harm than good.

What Does a Positive Drug Test Actually Tell Us?

A positive drug test provides an illusion of clear evidence, fact and truth. The illusion occurs because the results of the test are not 100% reliable and can be contested. First, the test could produce a ‘false’ positive, or for that matter a ‘false’ negative. Errors and misreading’s can be caused by human error in the testing process, or by faulty testing equipment. While this is not usual, there really should be no room for error given that the outcome could result in loss of liberty, loss of employment, damage to personal relationships and considerable repercussions in later life. Secondly, the result may not be a ‘misreading’ but it could be misleading – the person may accurately show positive for an illicit drug, but it might be a drug which was consumed as a herbal supplement or medication, for example, a person who takes a paracodeine tablet for a severe headache would test positive for opiates. It would then be misleading to assume the person was ‘back on heroin’ even though they tested positive. Thirdly, relying upon the apparent ‘truth’ of a drug test can be flawed because negative test results may be achieved via kits readily available from the Internet that mask the presence of the illicit drugs. So a positive or negative drug test isn’t necessarily a definitive outcome, it could be a contested and/or misleading outcome.

However, it could be argued that in most cases they provide useful and fairly accurate information. Well let us assume that the test is indeed accurate – what does it actually tell the parent, teacher, employer, court or drug worker? Imagine you had a drink problem and at a later date you test positive for the drug alcohol, what does it indicate – it doesn’t tell us how you took the drug (it could have been a sherry trifle), where you took the drug, why you took the drug, when you took the drug or who you took the drug with. Most important, a positive drug test would give no real insight as to whether or not you have an alcohol problem. It is important to be absolutely clear drug use is not indicative of drug misuse, and a positive result will not indicate why or in what circumstances the drug was ingested.

These contextual details are much more important than the apparent ‘factual’ detail of the presence of a drug in your body. At best drug testing technology is only able to provide contested ‘evidence’ that a person is (or is not) free from a particular drug. This crude indicator risks decontextualize and over-simplifying the issue of illicit drug use. Thinking can easily drifts into binary measure of:

  • you are either drug free or a drug addict;
  • you are either telling the truth or you are lying;
  • you are either co-operating or being deviant;
  • you either want help or you don’t want help.

Armed with a ‘hard copy’ evidence of a positive drug test gives those in power and authority confidence to impose sanctions and punishments upon the ‘outsider’ or ‘deviant’ based upon what masquerades as indisputable evidence. This approach is not only deeply flawed, it can also have a number of serious adverse and unintended consequences.


14 Negative Consequences of Drug Testing:

  1. Drug testing identifies substance use rather than any substance disorder. Concern should be directed towards the person with a drug problem not towards the experimental or recreational user.
  2. Some maintenance opioid substitute prescribing regimes rooted in harm reduction have as a result of positive drug tests adopted more punitive abstinence only regimes and on suspended prescribing.
  3. Most people with a chronic drug problem have suffered damaging personal and social circumstances before drugs became an issue and need considerable help and support more generally. Drug testing can lead to a pre-occupation to ensure the eradication the drug, and this narrow focus risks side-stepping the real underlying issues, which if not addressed, will almost certainly lead to drug relapse.
  4. Women drug users with child care responsibilities have been forced to undertake daily drug tests to prove they are drug free, this disproportionate focus on drug presence can mean failure to deliver a negative drug test results in the child being looked after by the state. Parental capability to care for your child cannot be reduced to a contested drug test.
  5. An elevated importance to drug testing from key stakeholders can result in a paradigm shift in which abstinence becomes the measure of a successful outcome. Harm reduction may become marginalised in the process, and the messy and difficult business of rehabilitation and reintegration may get reduced to a simple celebration that the person appears to be drug free.
  6. Around 30-70% of young people in most countries have used illicit drugs and most manage to avoid: a criminal record; a drug problem; harm to themselves or others. Widespread random drug testing will result in net-widening and capturing non-problematic drug users who then risk being ascribed damaging labels as ‘deviant’ or ‘addicts’ which could pose serious damage to future life opportunities (employment, education, travel, insurance, housing etc) and in relationships.
  7. Resources for public and voluntary services are limited and money that could be used to tackle problematic drug use is wasted on expensive drug testing for people who don’t use drugs, or who use drugs in a non-problematic recreational manner.
  8. Random drug testing of pupils, students and children as a health promotion strategy is misguided. Cultural behavioural change is not achieved through policing, confronting and punishing, but by facilitating meaningful, reliable information exchange, education, relationships and dialogue.
  9. The most widely used illicit drug – cannabis – is less harmful than the promoted legal drugs alcohol and tobacco, it is therefore ethically problematic, irrational and indeed hypocritical to drug test for cannabis and not for alcohol and tobacco.
  10. Drug testing regimes with sanctions, such as random drug tests in colleges (to exclude students who test positive), create a ‘cat and mouse’ game in which an adversarial relationship is established, both sides then seek to out-smart the other with new technology or deceptive techniques. The winners in this game are the drug testing businesses and underground laboratories; but the losers are honesty, trust and communication.
  11. Tougher and more pervasive drug testing regimes to stamp out illicit drug use help spawn the proliferation of new synthetic designer ‘legal’ highs which avoid detection (such as Spice). Once the new drugs have been detected and outlawed the drug testing ‘net’ widens, new legal highs are developed and the spiral continues. These legal highs may be considerably more dangerous than commonly used illicit drugs.
  12. Some drugs like cannabis can stay in the body for over four weeks whereas drugs like cocaine can be out of the body within 48 hours. Random drug testing regimes (such as those in prisons) have inadvertently pressurised people who have switched from the less harmful cannabis to the more dangerous heroin, spice or cocaine.
  13. Drug testing concentrates attention towards illegal drug use and unhelpfully firms up the misguided bifurcation between licit and illicit substances. It is not the use of any illicit drug that warrants attention but rather the misuse of any drug legal and illegal that should warrants attention.
  14. A positive drug test may reduce the risk of people who are intoxicated from using machinery, driving a car or flying a plane, however, testing positive for a drug doesn’t necessarily mean that the person is intoxicated or impaired – for example cannabis can be detected a month after not using.

Conclusion

While drug testing seems to offers seductive simplicity, the shortfalls, ambiguities and misuse of drug testing technology has arguably greater potential to mislead and distort rather than to inform. The future of drug prevention and drug treatment lie not with monitoring, coercion and punishments, but with listening, engaging and caring – drug testing sits firmly with the former and not with the latter. Drug checking by contrast is an important harm reduction strategy to check the contents of unknown substances to protect people from overdose or poisoning. Testing pills is quite different to drug testing people, one is vital and the other is a counter productive waste of money.

Julian Buchanan


  • This blog is based on a conference paper, the PowerPoint presentation which can be accessed here
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1 Comment

  1. […] Our sophisticated techy gadgets, gismos and latest ‘apps’ make life easier, simpler and quicker. Our technology driven society monitors, measures and controls almost every aspect of daily life. The…  […]

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