Drug Testing

Federal Proposal Would Expand Hair Testing of Job Applicants and Employees To Make Sure They Are Obeying Drug Prohibition

The method, which can detect drug metabolites for up to a year, does not measure impairment or recent use.

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A rule recently proposed by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) revives the previously rejected idea of using hair tests in drug screening of federal employees and workers in federally regulated industries. The proposed rule, which was published last week, says "hair testing potentially offers several benefits when compared to urine," including "a longer window of drug detection."

If the aim of these tests is to identify workers whose job performance is affected by psychoactive substances, that "benefit" is actually a disadvantage. Metabolites do not show up in hair until after a drug's effects have worn off and typically can be detected for up to three months. Depending on hair length and growth rate, the detection window can be as long as a year. In other words, hair testing does not detect impairment or even recent use. There is a similar problem with urine testing, but the detection period for urinalysis is much shorter—a few days after a single dose of marijuana, for example, or as long as a month for regular cannabis consumers.

Another widely recognized problem with hair tests is that their results are affected by hair color. SAMSHA acknowledges "scientific evidence that melanin pigments may influence the amount of drug incorporated into hair." In one study cited by SAMSHA, for example, "codeine concentrations in black hair were seven-fold higher than those in brown hair and 14-15-fold higher than those in blond hair." As the agency notes, such findings "have raised concerns that selective drug binding with the wide variation of color pigments distributed amongst the population may introduce bias in drug test results."

The implication is that people with darker hair—blacks and Hispanics, for example—are more likely to lose their jobs or have their applications rejected as a result of a positive hair test. "It is mind-boggling that the federal government is revisiting this half-baked proposal now," says Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). "Given the heightened awareness surrounding the need for social and racial equity, the idea of proposing a testing procedure that will inherently deny more people of color opportunities than it would others who have engaged in exactly the same activities is beyond tone deaf and counterproductive."

SAMSHA's proposal, which would allow the use of hair samples in pre-employment screening and random testing by federal agencies, is also likely to be adopted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Transportation, which regulates industries such as trucking and railroads. SAMSHA projects that the rule would lead to 275,000 hair tests by federal agencies each year, plus 15,000 tests in the nuclear industry and 1.5 million in the transportation sector.

Based on the relevant case law, SAMHSA notes, "an employment action taken on the basis of a positive hair test alone, without other corroborating evidence, may be vulnerable to legal challenge." The rule therefore would require a confirmatory urine or saliva test.

SAMSHA says "this two-test approach is intended to protect federal workers from issues that have been identified as limitations of hair testing, and related legal deficiencies." But it suggests that a second test might not be required for marijuana metabolites: "The Department is specifically requesting comments, including support from the recent scientific literature, on whether hair tests that are positive for the marijuana analyte, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol-9-carboxylic acid (THCA), should be excluded from the requirement to test an alternate authorized specimen."

Pre-employment and random hair analysis is likely to identify many cannabis consumers and other drug users whose choice of recreational intoxicants when they are not at work is irrelevant to their job performance. On the face of it, firing or refusing to hire those people makes as much sense as rejecting or dismissing people based on a positive hair test for alcohol.

Despite the weak empirical basis for workplace drug testing, employers who demand urine from job applicants traditionally have argued that they are trying to filter out the sort of people who disobey the drug laws, which they view as a marker of antisocial and irresponsible tendencies. Given the ongoing collapse of marijuana prohibition, that argument is becoming increasingly tenuous as applied to cannabis consumers, the group most commonly identified by drug testing.

Employers who use pre-employment urinalysis also maintain that it identifies applicants who are either too dependent or too stupid and reckless to stop smoking pot in time to pass a test they know they will have to take. But that argument is hard to take seriously if employers use a test that can detect drug metabolites for up to a year.

Marijuana Moment notes that SAMSHA wrote its proposal without consulting the federal Drug Testing Advisory Board. "These proposed guidelines were developed without the expertise needed to ensure that they are scientifically accurate and defensible," board member Michael Schaffer, a toxicologist who works for the hair testing company Psychemedics, told Freight News. But Schaffer's main objection is that SAMSHA's guidelines are too restrictive. "I fear that these proposed guidelines are going to unnecessarily restrict the use of hair drug testing, an incredibly effective tool at detecting drug use, for reasons which have no scientific basis," he said.

NORML's perspective, as you might expect, is rather different. "Hair follicle testing is well established to possesses limited probative value, which is why it has never gained a particularly strong foothold in the general workplace," it says. "Federal authorities have also rejected the inclusion of hair follicle testing in the federal workplace drug testing guidelines on multiple occasions dating back decades." Given the manifest weaknesses in the case for hair testing, it is best viewed as yet another way of enforcing drug prohibition and punishing people who defy it.

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  1. Federal Proposal Would Expand Hair Testing of Job Applicants and Employees To Make Sure They Are Obeying Drug Prohibition

    And? Don’t like the government’s (or anyone else’s) prohibition policies, don’t seek employment with them. No one is owed a government job and employees working on the public dole should generally be banned from incapacitating themselves.

    1. In a Biden presidency, there are no more private employers.

      All are government employees in the Sanders/Biden/Harris/Castro administration.

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    2. Given the manifest weaknesses in the case for hair testing, it is best viewed as yet another way of enforcing drug prohibition and punishing people who defy it.

      And, again, when we say “punishing” do we mean they’re being hauled off to prison or is this a Tony-esque level of retardation where not giving someone something that isn’t necessarily theirs is punishing them?

      1. Other things can be punishment besides prison and fines. You are being too literal. Maybe it’s not the best word to choose, but I don’t think it’s totally unreasonable in this case when you are denied a job that you are otherwise qualified for for reasons that have nothing to do with your ability to do the job.
        Yeah, employers, including the government can set their own standards. That doesn’t mean we can’t think those standards are foolish or unreasonable. Especially in the case of government where public opinion and pressure should matter to those who make the policies (assuming you think some degree of democracy is a good idea).

        1. So the government owes qualified people jobs, yes or no?

    3. Should they be banned from incapacitating themselves in the privacy of their own homes while not on the clock?

      1. Certainly. The new-fangled libertarianism is to be able to deny employment for any reason (except when it is by government force… oh), even your hair color or that fish emblem on your vehicle, and the bitch incessantly afterwards about cancel culture while insisting that the free market will eventually sort it out.

        And if you don’t like it, you can just move to another country.

        Easy-peasy.

      2. If they can’t prove that it doesn’t affect their work, yeah.

        This is government tax dollars, don’t like it, found your own company and employ all the weekend drinking and smoking buddies you like.

        Or would you rather have a dope-smoking paper pusher who can’t rub two brain cells together telling you that you can’t do that without a permit?

        1. Like they aren’t there already.

    4. It doesn’t affect just government employees, it applies to regulated industries as well. You didn’t read the article, did you?

      1. So the regulation is otherwise OK as long as MJ is legal? Talk about libertarianism for the motherfucking win!

        You guys are fucking retarded.

        1. You guys are fucking retarded.

          I mean, FFS, are you guys gonna tell me that we should let cops who only use speed, LSD, and steroids on the weekends show up to work on Monday too?

    5. go back and read the piece again. It says federal employees and “federaly regulated industries”….. which are not named, but I’ll lay high stakes at long odds we’d both be surprised at how many more people will get scooped up in the dragnet being proposed here.

      Once more FedGov are on a rage to gain more control. Deny them.

      1. Once more FedGov are on a rage to gain more control. Deny them.

        I am. Go start your own head shop, machining business, internet startup… When the feds come in the doors and demand employees be tested, tell them to cram it sideways. Or, you know, go work for the Federal government and, like an idiotic pre-teen, bitch about how the same company that pays your paycheck also expects you to be sober.

    6. This applies to any employee of any federally regulated industry not just government employees. And as long as MJ is illegal at the federal level, as a practical matter, the law requires that, truck drivers for instance, be denied employment or be fired if they fail a drug test notwithstanding the legality in their state. Hair follicle testing means that people will be denied employment for something they did legally a year ago.

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  2. SAMSHA acknowledges “scientific evidence that melanin pigments may influence the amount of drug incorporated into hair.” In one study cited by SAMSHA, for example, “codeine concentrations in black hair were seven-fold higher than those in brown hair and 14-15-fold higher than those in blond hair.”

    More white privilege.

    1. The overtly racist interpretation of the results is pretty hilarious.

      Imagine if they acknowledged scientific evidence that melanin pigments may influence the amount of sickle cells in a person’s blood.

      Melanin may be associated with the outcome but the idea that it’s *the* influencer is rather far-fetched.

      1. Melanin definitely doesn’t do that. Jebus, hace you bio teachers failed you.

        1. Melanin definitely doesn’t do that.

          No shit dumbass, that’s the point. Melanin doesn’t magically make codeine more soluble in keratin either. The metabolism that produces melanin-infused keratin is more susceptible to contamination by codeine. The melanin itself has nothing to do with it any more than it does with sickle-cell anemia or IQ or athletic ability. They’re making the same association = causation fallacy that any rabid racist spouting off about phrenology 150 yrs. ago would make.

          1. I’m not a dumbass because you wrote something ridiculously stupid and ignorant. Sorry.

          2. To be very clear: there was one person who confused ancestry/just random genes with real genetics here. It was you. You are the dumbfuck

            1. Casual was quite clearly being sarcastic. I understand missing that. It happens to everyone, but don’t double down on it.

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  3. Employers who use pre-employment urinalysis also maintain that it identifies applicants who are either too dependent or too stupid and reckless to stop smoking pot in time to pass a test they know they will have to take. But that argument is hard to take seriously if employers use a test that can detect drug metabolites for up to a year.

    No, it suggests you’re too stupid to shave your head before applying for a Federal job.

    Do I have to think of everything, people?

    1. And your whole body. They’ll take a pube, eyebrow, or eyelash if you’ve got one. It’s ok to be a functional alcoholic though.

      1. Y’all beat me to it! Job applicants shave your WHOLE BODY before getting interviewed and tested!!!

        Will they then literally demand their “pound of flesh”?

      2. It is said that the government would discriminate against Alopecians.

    2. And given the number of times I’ve heard various HR departments complain about failed drug tests, it is very much a weed-out-the-idiots test.

  4. Army Unit Prevention Leaders would prefer collecting hair samples to what they have to do now.

    1. Latrine duty?

      1. They administer the urinalysis. It’s a unpleasant additional duty and a good reason to volunteer for any other before you get tagged.

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  6. Time to break out that real blonde hair wig. I hope that bitch didn’t smoke!

    1. Reminds me of the joke about the worker who got the results of his drug test.
      “The results of the urine test do not indicate any recent drug use. However, it also indicates you are pregnant”.

  7. Federal Proposal Would Expand Hair Testing of Job Applicants

    Split ends? Unacceptable.

  8. I’m blond and keep my hair short. How many days do I have to go without taking drugs?

    1. Zero. Just don’t take a job involving the feds.

      1. I often think of the good talent they’re missing out on by only hiring the straight-laced.

        1. It’s crazy town around here. Apparently I’m some sort of über-right-wing goose-stepping Nazi for thinking such talent’s rightful place is in the private market.

          1. Putting idiots in the public sector helps no one, as we have clearly seen. Those of us still alive, that is.

        2. I often think of the good talent they’re missing out on by only hiring the straight-laced.

          It’s a federal bureaucracy: creativity and talent are irrelevant. Strict adherence to the law is what matters, and if you take illegal drugs, you shouldn’t qualify.

  9. My new job had me go in for a drug test. Quite frankly I was shocked. It’s 2020 and no one does drug tests anymore. Especially not in the tech sphere. But my new company had that requirement. So there I was in line to pee into a bottle. The only other people in line were truck drivers.

    Truck drivers makes sense. Should be up to their insurance rather than the Feds, but still it makes sense. But a software developer? Ridiculous.

    People drinking way too much koolaid.

    1. O&G companies in particular are renowned for this. Even if you’re an IT
      or legal contractor who isn’t going within 300 miles of a working rig.

      Silly, but it’s what their insurers want, so…

      For the OP, you thought government IT work was garbage before…

    2. It almost makes sense for truckers. But they can still get drunk every night. I think I’d be more concerned about a hung over trucker than one who smokes weed.

    3. How does it make sense for truck drivers? If a driver gets high on the weekend and is stone cold sober when he goes to work he should be fired? Funny how libertarians seem to forget first principles when it’s somebody else that’s getting fucked over.

      1. If a driver gets high on the weekend and is stone cold sober when he goes to work he should be fired?

        If he’s trucking for the government, yes. Libertarian first principles says he’s working on stolen tax dollars.

      2. It’s funny how you just lumped all libertarians together and accused them of something they’re not guilty of.

  10. I only consume beer, wine or whiskey , guess I’m ok.

    1. Don’t you get awfully hungry?

  11. I’d suggest drug tests (or psych evals) for the assholes that came up with this proposal. Oh, what the fuck, just throw ’em all straight into the woodchipper, better safe than sorry and you can’t be too careful with this level of assholery.

    1. So, your interpretation of libertarianism says to throw people who haven’t physically harmed anyone into the woodchipper to maintain the flow of tax dollars?

      1. So your interpretation of libertarianism is to hire lots of federal employees at tax payers expense, empowered with draconian enforcement of draconian laws and regulations, and on top of that, exempt them from obeying the law themselves? Because that’s what you seem to be saying.

    2. I’d suggest drug tests (or psych evals) for the assholes that came up with this proposal

      Yeah, because we really want to be governed by federal employees who can’t even be bothered to comply with the laws they are empowered to enforce! /sarc

  12. I much prefer having to urinate in a cup, you can then request they hold the cup.

    Every male knows, sometimes you shoot wide of the mark no matter how hard you try. 😉

    1. If you are ready for a job change, try this.
      They send you in for the whiz quiz.
      You akd the administrator if you can get fired for refusing the test.
      They say yes.
      You leave and report the administrator to HR for requiring you to perform a sexual act or lose your job.

  13. SAMSHA acknowledges “scientific evidence that melanin pigments may influence the amount of drug incorporated into hair.”

    So they be racists?

  14. They feed from the tax trough. Who cares what happens to them?

  15. Does that apply to politics is. And all of their aides, interns, etc?

    Because if not, it’s a huge fucking waste. I remember once Mike Riggs right here at Reason noted that he’s been to dozens of gatherings with various aides, many of them who were actively involved in writing and implementing drug war policy, who smoked loads of pot.

  16. the Chinese will flip them if they find out the GMen are junkies lol

  17. Why do we even have a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration? That sounds like a perfect example of a government bureaucracy to unilaterally shut down.

    1. Maybe every Reason article should just read: This is not something the government should be doing and the agency shouldn’t even exist. Shut it down. The End.

  18. I find it odd that drug testing of employees, something done by almost every company of any size for decades, is suddenly something new and dangerous.

    Furthermore, hair testing, something again done for decades, is now not only new and controversial, but racist as well.

    1. It seems that a lot of companies have dropped it. It was quite popular in first half of the 90s.

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  21. Next they’ll be digging-up Grandma’s corpse to see if your ancestors were drug scofflaws. Just in case it’s hereditary.

  22. So how does this propose to handle Police/Law Enforcement agencies who’s employees typically, in a cult like manner, shave their heads, specifically to avoid hair testing for drugs and steroids?

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  24. So you believe that drug laws are arbitrary and unfair and you disagree with them? Well, being a federal employee means you have to implement the laws as written, whether you agree with them or not. If you have broken the law by taking illegal drugs any time within the last few years, you obviously lack the necessary mindset to be a federal employee.

    1. I’d say that’s the perfect mindset. Do as I say, not as I do. Some animals are more equal than others.

  25. A thought I’ve had for the longest is ,when these draconian drug tests for federal workers are proposed,I almost never see congressional/executive/judicial level representatives included. Are they somehow exempt or am I missing something? I would appreciate feedback from anyone.

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