The Department of Health and Human Services announced via the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration that it’s proposing to establish scientific and technical guidelines for the inclusion of hair specimens in the mandatory guidelines for federal workplace drug testing programs, regardless of their long-known racial disparities.

The plan would allow federal executive branch agencies “to collect and test a hair specimen as part of their drug testing programs with the limitation that hair specimens be used for pre-employment (i.e., for applicants applying for federal testing designated positions) and random testing.” This raises the question of what exactly are the limitations being referenced? It would seem pre-employment screening and random testing would cover just about everyone.

The method had been widely scrutinized for decades due to the impact ethnicity has on hair. Twenty years ago, researchers covered the problems in Forensic Science International.

“Due to differences in hair growth rate depending on anatomical region, age, gender, ethnicity and interindividual variability, interpretation of parent drug or/and metabolite concentrations in hair is not easy,” the research said. “Furthermore, as drug incorporation mechanisms into hair matrix is not yet fully understood, it is rather difficult to extrapolate details on time and dose from hair segment analysis.”

Researchers went even further in scrutinizing results once they factored in sources such as external/environmental contamination, saying that “interpretation becomes even more complicated.”

In addition to the variation in results depending on your family heritage, the hair tests cover a more extended time period than urine tests currently in use. Someone reasonably fit and well hydrated can clear their system of THC in a few weeks. But with hair samples, the THC can stick with you for months. More importantly, however, is the variation.

Again these are old facts, 20 years ago the ACLU said that the spread of hair testing meant trouble. “People seem to assume that because it’s a scientific test done in a lab, it must be a good thing,” Lewis Maltby, Executive Director of the ACLU’s Workplace Rights Project, said at the time.

SAMHSA’s own website has a PowerPoint presentation from 2014 explaining the problems.

The presentation was funded by the Department of Health and Human Services and SAMHSA. It was originally intended for the use of the Drug Testing Advisory Board. While the presentation notes it does not reflect the views of HHS or SAMHSA, it certainly reflects a summary of facts that were being used by officials in the Obama administration. The authors went into the issues right off the bat, noting drugs bind to melanin and melanin content greater in darker hair. So even by omission of data on SAMHSA’s website, if an African American and person of Western European descent smoke a joint at the same time, the African American is at risk of failing the hair follicle test for a longer period. The presentation also pointed to the fact that cocaine binds to the hair of African Americans at a rate 3.5 times that of Caucasians. While the date pool was limited, researchers felt pretty confident cocaine had greater affinity for black hair as opposed to blonde.

One of the organizations working for decades to reform workplace drug testing practices has been the Drug Policy Alliance. We reached out to get their take on this plan that is seemingly being pushed forward despite the clear disparity issues covered by the previous administration and many others over the years.

“It is deeply concerning that the federal government is willing to promote the use of a form of racially-biased, ineffective, and costly drug testing method to pre-screen applicants for federal jobs,” Sheila Vakharia, Ph.D., Deputy Director of the Department of Research & Academic Engagement at the Drug Policy Alliance, told L.A. Weekly in an email.

Vakharia went on to call the window of time covered in hair testing generally overbearing.

“Another challenge of hair testing is that, unlike urine testing, it captures a larger window of drug use – potentially meaning that applicants could be denied jobs due to use that occurred weeks or months before they even applied for the job,” she said. “This is yet another example of the overreach of our puritanical and punitive approach to drug use – that people can be denied opportunities at gainful employment to care for themselves or their loved ones regardless of qualification and performance – simply because they choose to use drugs.”

Last month the Wall Street Journal reported that drug tests have reached a 16-year high. A giant factor was the bump in marijuana use as states continue to exit the underground market, creating the medical and adult-use access points. The addition of hair testing will only bump these numbers further, and expect the impact of these failed tests to hit communities of color the hardest.


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