Story by Rick Cusick
On April 13, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released proposed guidelines and standards for hair-, sweat- and saliva-testing for federal employees. These guidelines, if adopted, will be added to existing protocols for urine-testing and give the drug warriors more weapons in their battle against civil liberties. These guidelines will then be used throughout the private sector as the de facto standards for employee drug-testing.
Though there’s little chance that public debate will stanch the flow of increased social engineering, it’s probably a good idea for drug-law reformers to note the serious flaws set forth in these guidelines. Almost all of them relate to marijuana-smokers.
According to the proposed guidelines, “The Department has remained committed to... identifying and using the most accurate reliable drug testing technology available.” This is, at best, disingenuous, since the guidelines quickly disintegrate into a litany of imperfect standards that almost certainly will lead to false marijuana positives.
Most egregious is the suggestion that saliva tests be admitted despite a host of intrinsic limitations. Even HHS admits, “Less is known about the pharmacokinetics and disposition of drugs into oral fluid as compared to urine.” Government science shows that almost all drugs enter oral fluid through diffusion from the bloodstream into the saliva. However, THC doesn’t diffuse into the saliva: Saliva tests detect marijuana in the mouth and can’t differentiate between use (i.e., “I smoked a joint”) and environmental contamination (i.e., “I was in the room when someone smoked a joint”).
HHS is aware of the problem: “In order to protect Federal workers from incorrect test results for marijuana, the Department proposes that a second biological specimen, a urine specimen, will need to be collected.” In other words, saliva-testing is so suspect that it has to be confirmed by a urine specimen.
In addition to recommending the flawed spit-test methodology, HHS is also endorsing point-of-collection testing devices (POCT)—small, hand-held test units that provide immediate results. POCT’s test both urine and saliva and have been commercially available since the early 90’s. The guidelines clearly state that there has been only one independent study to date for the saliva POCT. That study found “variability and difficulty in detecting cannabinoids,” but suggested that “rapid evolution of the technology should overcome current problems.” HHS promises to revise the guidelines when the science becomes available to differentiate between actual use and environmental contamination—but for now, “despite these known limitations, the Department proposes to incorporate this new technology.”
The logic behind both recommendations is that science will rapidly catch up and correct these problems. Is this true? Probably. But that hardly makes an imprecise test a sound policy choice. Why this rush to judgment?