Hair Tomorrow


The federal government is changing its drug screening guidelines to incorporate hair, saliva, and sweat testing as well as urinalysis. The guidelines apply to federal employees and workers in regulated industries, and other private employers tend to follow them as well. The avowed rationales for the changes are contradictory. On the one hand, the Associated Press reports, the government wants drug testing "to be more precise":

Alternative testing methods would give employers more certainty about the timing and scope of drug usage than is now possible solely with urine sampling, said Robert Stephenson II, an official with the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

That could be particularly valuable in situations like investigations of on-the-job accidents, to determine not just whether an employee uses drugs but if usage occurred recently enough to be a cause.

On the other hand, hair testing will allow detection of drug traces going back several months, thereby making it possible to nab even more people whose drug use has no effect on their job performance. Alternative testing will "really ramp up our ability to increase the deterrent value of our program, which is basically the whole bottom line," says Stephenson.

The bottom line, in other words, is not improving safety or productivity but enforcing drug prohibition–one of the main conclusions I drew in a story on drug testing that appeared in the November 2002 issue of Reason.