When Jack Dufficy, warden for Pennsylvania’s newly built Pike County prison, began hiring correctional officers and other personnel, he insisted that they all take hair-follicle tests for drug use.
Dufficy told the prison’s board of directors that it was a foolproof test to detect any of several drugs, including marijuana, cocaine, opiates, amphetamines and PCP. “In a urinalysis test, if somebody cleanses their body by abstaining for four or five days, their use of drugs would not be evident. In a hair test, we can get a history of drug use for up to three months prior to the test,” he said.
Hair-follicle testing is the new rage among the Big Brothers of corporate and government power to weed out herb-smokers and other undesirables. It is currently being used by hundreds of corporations, the Federal Reserve Bank and dozens of municipalities, including the New York Police Department. One New York officer recently resigned rather than take the test.
Most, like Dufficy, were sold on the test as a foolproof way of checking drug use. But hair-follicle testing is controversial at best, and a big business-government conspiracy to intrude on the private lives of citizens at worst.
The largest company currently marketing hair-follicle drug-testing is the Psychemedics Corporation of Boston. The company claims to have the only patent on hair drug-testing, and says the method accurately identifies five to 10 times as many drug users as urine tests. A company spokesman says Psychemedics is making a dent in the billion-dollar urinalysis-drug-testing market.
According to Psychemedics literature, the test was pioneered in the late ’70s with funding from the Navy and the Veterans Administration and the cooperation of the FBI. The first commercial hair-testing lab opened in 1987.
Psychemedics claims that their RIAH test (for “radioimmunoassay of hair”) is a proven procedure that both detects drug use and provides a history of the quantity and pattern of use. A brochure explains that ingested drugs circulate in the bloodstream, which nourishes developing hair follicles. Trace amounts of the drugs become entrapped in the core of the hair shaft. The traces remain in the hair as it grows out and can be detected there for up to years to come.
Employers send some 60 hair samples from a testee to a Psychemedics lab in California for analysis. The hairs should be at least an inch and half long and can come from any part of the body. The reason for the minimum hair length is that hair is estimated to grow a half-inch per month, and the shorter the hair, the less accurate the test. It is even less accurate for recently ingested drugs, because the traces take a few days to find their way into the hair.
The claims of hair-testing’s accuracy are disputed by several physicians, including Dr. Tod Mikuriya, a Berkeley, CA-based longtime medical-marijuana advocate. “There’s a great deal of question about whether these tests are legitimate because of the possibility of contamination from surroundings,” he says. “Anything that gets stuck on the outside of the hair can go to the inside, because hair is porous.” In other words, being in a room where others are smoking marijuana may lead to a false positive.
Mikuriya notes that hair-follicle testing is not yet recognized as a legitimate drug test by the federal Transportation Department or the National Institute of Drug Abuse, and that the rate of hair-substance absorption may be different for different ethnic groups.
“Psychemedics are a techno-fraud, having marketed a technology they haven’t proven to be free from error or external contamination,” says Mikuriya. “They can make all the claims they want, but it doesn’t mean they are true.”
Although a publicly traded company, Psychemedics remains close to government operations. Among the company’s executives is Robert L. DuPont, chairman of its scientific advisory board. DuPont was director of NIDA from 1973 to 1978, serving under presidents Nixon, Ford and Carter. In 1973, he was appointed by Nixon to head the White House Special Action Office for Drug Abuse Prevention, where coordinating research programs was among his duties.
Psychemedics also recently started marketing PDT-90, a hair drug test for parents to use at home on their children. In the literature announcing it, the company recommends that the hair samples be taken with the child’s knowledge and cooperation, but it will perform drug tests on any hair samples received, including from a hairbrush.
“It’s more intrusive than urine testing, going back months and sometimes years prior to the test,” says Robert Strang, a former DEA agent and president of Strang Hayes Consulting, a Manhattan management company that specializes in drug-prevention programs. “It changes the rules of probable-cause/reasonable-suspicion testing in the workplace.”
For example, Strang said, if there’s an accident in a safety-sensitive position, hair-follicle testing would leave open the question of whether the drugs were in the person’s system at the time of the accident.
“It’s not as physically intrusive as a urine test, but it’s a greater intrusion on your privacy because it goes back further in your life,” says one Los Angeles attorney. “It’s also scary that they can test you easier without your knowledge.”
Napa County attorney and former NORML national chairman Gordon Drownell says, “They can get specimens off a comb or the barbershop floor. Once you get your hair cut and walk out of the barbershop, you’ve abandoned the hair you left. The courts most likely will say that once you abandoned your property—your hair—it becomes public domain. This is much worse in many ways that urinalysis.”