Drug testing provides information about past or current substance use to law enforcement agents, medical providers, employers, schools, and other institutions. Today, teens are subject to drug testing almost as frequently as adults are. Testing can help to protect public safety, as well as the health and safety of an intoxicated person. For example, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that in 2012, drunk driving took the lives of more than 10,000 people. Roadside testing for drug or alcohol use can help to apprehend motorists who are under the influence of an intoxicating substance before they harm themselves or others. Although drug testing can’t assess a person’s level of impairment or ability to perform a task safely, it can provide an accurate reflection of the presence of a drug in a person’s body, or the content of a substance, such as alcohol, in the bloodstream. Medical providers, school officials, law officers, or employers can then draw conclusions about a person’s ability to function safely based on the level of intoxication. Substances that can be detected in drug tests include:
- Opiates (morphine, heroin, oxycodone, methadone, and other natural or synthetic drugs derived from opium)
- Anabolic steroids
- Barbiturates (including sedatives like phenobarbital/Nembutal and secobarbital/Seconal)
- Benzodiazepines (including tranquilizers like alprazolam/Xanax, lorazepam/Ativan, and diazepam/Valium)
- Hallucinogenic drugs (such as mescaline, peyote, or LSD)
- Inhalants (such as aerosols, butane, or solvents)
Why Are Drug Tests Performed?There are many reasons why a drug test might be administered. In recent years, drug testing has become more common in America’s public schools. The Washington Post reports that school districts across the country have initiated drug screening programs for the following reasons:
- To qualify for participation in sports and other extracurricular activities
- To check for the use of steroids or other drugs that can enhance athletic performance
- To test students who are on probation
- To ensure sobriety in student drivers
- To reduce substance abuse and drug-related crime through random screening
- Suspicion of intoxication: Police offers may test people who are behaving in an unsafe, violent, or erratic manner in order to determine whether they are a danger to themselves or others. Roadside testing for drug or alcohol use can help to determine whether a motorist is impaired by substance abuse.
- Pre-employment screening: For many employers, especially state or federal government agencies, drug screening is a condition of employment. In order to ensure a safe workplace, prevent injuries to employees, and protect the public, employers need to know whether an applicant has a history of drug or alcohol abuse.
- Random workplace testing: Some employers establish a policy that employees must agree to take a drug test at any time. This allows employers to screen for drug or alcohol use, whether or not there is a suspicion that an employee has been using drugs. Employers may select employees to test based on a lottery system or pool.
- Medical screening: Health care providers may order a drug or alcohol screening test to determine whether a patient has an intoxicating substance in his or her system. Drug tests can help doctors determine a course of treatment for a patient who appears disoriented, weak, confused, combative, or who is unconscious.
- Screening after an accident: After a motor vehicle accident or another incident that causes injuries or property damage, law enforcement agents or medical personnel may perform a toxicity screen to determine whether alcohol or drug use played a part in the incident. This information may be used for legal purposes, for insurance claims, or to plan a course of medical treatment.
What Types of Tests Are Available?Testing can be performed on a number of different body fluids, or via the breath. There are also performance tests that can be conducted to determine a person’s level of impairment. Listed below are the most frequently conducted types of drug tests:
- Breath tests: A breath-alcohol test, known as the Breathalyzer, is one of the easiest, most popular ways to check for the presence of alcohol in the body. By blowing into this small, portable device, the individual’s level of blood alcohol, or blood alcohol concentration (BAC) can be detected. Breathalyzers are frequently used in roadside testing, in emergency rooms, or in workplaces to determine whether a person is acutely under the influence of alcohol.
- Urine tests: After you use drugs or alcohol, the body releases waste products from these substances in the urine. Urinalysis, or a UA, is frequently used to check for the presence of these byproducts. A positive UA indicates that the person has used drugs within a certain amount of time, usually a few days. It does not necessarily indicate that the individual is currently under the influence of an intoxicating substance.
- Blood tests: A blood sample can be taken through venipuncture — the insertion of a needle in the vein by a medical provider or phlebotomist — to identify levels of certain intoxicants in the bloodstream. Although blood tests may be more accurate than urine tests at determining the current level of a substance in the body, urine tests are a more reliable way to reflect drug use within the past few days, according to the Drug and Alcohol Testing Industry Association.
- Tests on other body substances: Sweat, saliva, and hair can be tested for the presence of drugs. Traces of certain drugs, like cocaine, can be detected in hair for up to three months after the last use.
- Performance tests: Motorists under the suspicion of impaired driving may be asked by law enforcement agents to perform tests that evaluate their physical and cognitive function. These tests check functions such as balance, information processing skills, depth perception, and orientation.
Can Drug Tests Be Performed at Home?Home-based drug testing can be used to check for the presence of a substance in your own system, or to determine whether someone in your household is using drugs. Home use kits are available at drug stores or through online suppliers. These kits can be useful for parents who suspect that their children are using drugs. A home drug test kit contains test instructions, a collection container for the urine, and a testing device (such as a test strip, cassette, or card). Home drug tests are performed using a urine sample, which can be quickly checked for the presence of one or more drugs. If the initial result is positive, the test must then be sent to a laboratory for confirmation. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cautions that while these tests are generally accurate, a preliminary positive result does not necessarily prove that the individual is using drugs. It is very important to perform the test correctly and to submit the results for verification through a laboratory. The FDA adds that while these products can reveal the presence of an intoxicating substance in the individual’s urine, the tests don’t reflect how much of the drug has been consumed or how often it has been taken.
Are Drug Tests Accurate?Drug testing is not 100 percent accurate. Accuracy depends on a number of factors, such as the type of test, the substance being tested for, the presence of legally prescribed medications in the body, and the length of time that has passed since last use. WebMD states that positive results are false up to 10 percent of the time, while negative results are false up to 15 percent of the time. Commonly used medications and even certain food products can trigger false positive results, including cold and allergy medicines, diet pills, certain antidepressants, and poppy seeds. Testing is most accurate within a specific timeframe known as the “detection window.” The detection window varies from one chemical to another. Some drugs, such as alcohol, are eliminated from the body within a matter of hours, while residual traces of other substances, such as marijuana and cocaine, can be detected for 10 days to several weeks. If testing is conducted before or after the detection window, the results may be inaccurate.
Can Drug Tests Be Faked?It is possible to tamper with the results of a drug test; however, drug screening techniques and methods have become increasingly sophisticated in order to prevent falsification. As quickly as these tampering methods arise, toxicologists develop new ways to identify signs of cheating. Some of the most popular ways to beat a drug test are listed below:
- Using borrowed or synthetic urine: One of the most common methods of faking drug tests is to “borrow” clean urine from a sober friend or acquaintance. The urine is then substituted for the test subject’s urine during the course of the test. Recently, synthetic urine has become available as a means for faking drug tests. Synthetic or freeze-dried urine products are available through online suppliers that specialize in helping their customers pass a drug screen.
- Adulterating the urine: Adding a household chemical such as bleach, salt, or vinegar can alter the results of a urine test. These chemicals can be smuggled into the test site in a pocket or purse and added to the specimen before it’s submitted. There are also products for sale online that can be added to urine to neutralize residual traces of drugs.
- Watering down the urine: Drinking large quantities of water and other fluids before a urine test may dilute residual chemicals in the urine. But drinking a high volume of water too quickly can be dangerous, and laboratories have learned to test for overly diluted urine.
- Taking detoxifying supplements or vitamins: Certain vitamins and supplements have been used to flush drugs from the body. This method is extremely risky and can have dangerous side effects, and it is not very effective at altering the results of a drug test.