Tuesday, April 6, 2004

The federal government will soon use hair, sweat and saliva samples to test whether some 400,000 of its employees are using illegal drugs.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) yesterday announced the new rule that becomes effective in 180 days after a public-comment period. However, an agency spokeswoman said the more likely timetable for such testing to begin is next year.

About 400,000 federal workers who carry guns, have security clearance, deal with national security, and even presidential appointees can be subjected to the new testing procedures.

“Hopefully, federal employees found to be using illegal drugs will seek treatment to allow them to attain a healthy life in the community,” SAMHSA Director Charles Curie said in a statement. “At the same time, we believe that drug testing provides a powerful deterrent to the destructive and dangerous conditions drug use creates.”

The targeted employees are already subjected to random drug testing, tested after workplace accidents, or have shown signs of drug use. In 2000, the latest figure for testing, 106,493 workers from 118 agencies were tested for drugs, with 0.5 percent, or 532 persons, testing positive, SAMHSA spokeswoman Leah Young said.

With government approval for the testing on the horizon, private businesses will be encouraged to adopt similar testing for private-sector employees, said Anthony Oncidi who heads the Los Angeles law office of Proskavert and Rose, which represents business owners.

“It’s helpful, because it provides a uniform set of guidelines with regards to hair, saliva and sweat testing that most employers have not used as a means of obtaining samples,” Mr. Oncidi said.

These tests would also solve a chain-of-evidence problem — some employees substitute another person’s urine for their own. Urine can be bought on the Internet for the specific purpose of foiling a drug test, Mrs. Young said.

Current drug-testing methods are limited to urine samples, but the new rule allows federal agencies to determine which drug-testing method is best-suited and least intrusive.

Numerous products on the market that can beat or alter urine-based drug tests have prompted the change in how tests are conducted.

However, products to counter new testing are already available, including detox shampoos marketed to beat hair drug tests. “Pass any drug test with confidence” promises one Web site. There are no current countermeasures to saliva tests.

The new rules will also determine standards for laboratories conducting the tests.

A spokeswoman for the Food and Drug Administration said the three forms of testing have been approved as safe and reliable. Critics of the proposed rule, however, question the effectiveness of the tests and are concerned that innocent workers could be accused of using drugs.

“They are using science that might not work,” said Graham Boyd, director of the drug-policy litigation project at the American Civil Liberties Union.

“The big story here is to follow the money. This is a multimillion-dollar business and the companies that make these tests all want in on this,” Mr. Boyd said. “I’m sure this is a very happy day for them.”

Testing with urine samples runs $20 to $50 a test for the federal government, Mrs. Young said. The new tests will cost more, but officials expect the cost to get cheaper as the tests are more widely available.

One online store hawking drug-test kits sells urine tests for as much as $12, hair tests for $50 and saliva tests for $25.

Urine can be used to test for the presence of marijuana for up to five weeks, cocaine up to four days, opiates (morphine and heroin) up to two days, methamphetamines up to two days, and phencyclidine (PCP or angel dust) and Ecstasy for an undetermined time.

Sweat testing is done with a patch worn on the skin, which Mr. Boyd said can be contaminated by external factors, such as being in the room where marijuana is being smoked.

“It should be validated, proven, and regulated before you turn it loose on the public,” Mr. Boyd said.

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