Tony Newman at 646-335-5384 or Elizabeth Mendez Berry at 212-613-8036
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is well on the way to expanding permissible drug testing technologies to be used on 1.9 million federal employees. SAMHSA will accept comments until Monday, July 12, 2004 on the Proposed Revisions to Mandatory Guidelines for Federal Workplace Drug Testing Programs, FR DOC # 04-7984, published on April 13, 2004. The proposed regulations, if accepted, would expand the current, well-established urinalysis system of testing to permit hair, sweat, and saliva testing as well.
Critics of the proposed guidelines include the National Federation of Federal Employees, the nation’s oldest labor union representing Federal employees exclusively. “These proposed revisions are yet another attempt by this Administration to exhibit its distrust of Federal employees,” said Susan Tsui Grundmann, General Counsel of the NFFE. Experts, including advocacy groups like the DKT Liberty Project and the Drug Policy Alliance, stand with federal employees in opposing the proposed changes. The American Medical Review Officers as well as scientists from laboratories such as National Toxicology Specialists, the Toxicology & Drug Monitoring Laboratory of University of Missouri Health Care, and ACL Laboratories have also taken a public stand against the proposal. So have academics from major universities who have studied drug testing, and even policy advisors from drug testing agencies such as Kenneth Edgell of Pipeline Testing Consortium. The proposed guidelines and public comments can be found on SAMHSA’s website.
Members of the drug testing industry have been lobbying the government for years to expand the market of drug testing technologies permissible for federal employees, and have played an active role in developing the current proposal.
“The potential abuses that may well arise from these guidelines should be of grave concern to all Americans,” said Judy Appel, director of the Drug Policy Alliance’s Office of Legal Affairs. “Our government should be a leader in implementing performance based standards that do not run rough shod over the fundamental rights of privacy of our nation’s employees.”
Experts express grave concerns that the new technologies will lead to many wrongly-accused federal workers and will encourage the expanded use of these technologies in private workplaces throughout the country. As written, these experts agree that the guidelines do not provide for adequate safeguards to prevent false positive test results due to environmental contamination, sample mishandling, or other sources of contamination, and they point to strong scientific and logistical concerns with each of the proposed tests.
Drug testing is one of the most far-reaching and invasive weapons in the war on drugs. Each year millions of people throughout America are required to provide samples of their urine, or to offer up other bodily fluids or body parts to be analyzed for the presence of drugs. Yet the claims that drug testing is an effective deterrent against substance misuse, or that it promotes public safety and productivity are not grounded in scientific proof or any valid cost-benefit analyses. In fact, the National Science Foundation and the American Medical Association have reported that drug testing has been ineffective in reducing drug use and has had no noticeable impact on reducing employee absenteeism or increasing worker productivity.
SUMMARY OF CONCERNS
Environmental Contamination: Minute amounts of drugs in the environment can bind to hair and even change over time in a way that mimics the effect of drug use. The SAMHSA regulations themselves admit of this possibility, but claim that current tests can distinguish between the hair of a drug user and the hair of someone who has simply been exposed to drugs. Published, peer-reviewed research has shown this claim to be patently false.
Racial Bias: Because dark-colored hair incorporates drugs more rapidly, individuals with dark-colored hair will be more likely to test positive and more likely to have false positives than people with lighter hair, a result that will translate into a racial bias when large numbers of people are tested.
Environmental Contamination: Several independent scientific studies have shown that “sweat patch” testing can be contaminated by drugs in the environment, causing false positives. At least fourteen scientists have argued in peer-reviewed, published articles that sweat patches should not be used as a stand-alone indicator of drug use. Every real-life study of use of the sweat patch on non-drug users has found large numbers of false positives. A study at the National Institute on Drug Abuse found a forty percent false positive rate. SAMHSA’s draft regulations admit the possibility of environmental contamination, but allow use of the sweat patch anyway.
Unstudied Method: Unlike urinalysis, which has been closely studied by the scientific community for decades, saliva testing is a new technology and is not well understood by scientists. SAMHSA’s draft regulations themselves acknowledge concerns about false positive results due to contamination.
Field Testing (Point of Collection Testing)
Lack of Oversight: SAMHSA has delegated the oversight role to the federal agency that wishes to test its employees, making the agency responsible for developing procedures for testing, training and certifying testers, ensuring that testing procedures are actually followed, and developing and implementing a quality-control and inspection program. This delegation lacks uniformity of testing and ensures that mistakes will be made as agencies without experience with this type of testing struggle with their new responsibilities. SAMHSA acknowledges these potential problems, but declares that national oversight of field testing would “pose logistical challenges.”