New Drug Screening Procedures Await Approval
By Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample, USA
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 12, 2004 The Defense Department and other federal agencies may soon be able to implement new drug testing for its work force that will include testing hair, sweat and saliva to detect drug abuse.
Army Col. Mick Smith, senior staff officer for drug demand reduction at DoD's counternarcotics office, said the new procedures will be permitted once the Department of Health and Human Services approves proposed guidelines for the test and DoD completes a subsequent internal approval process.
Those guidelines awaiting DHHS approval will outline quality standards for new types of drug tests, specifically testing hair, oral fluid, sweat and urine, using point-of-collection tests.
However, Smith said, the guidelines will not be promulgated anytime soon. He said the process for getting the new testing measures implemented will first have to be published in the Federal Register and then must go through a 90-day comment period.
Smith said the guidelines also will be posted on the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration Web site. The agency is a division of DHHS.
After this comment period, he said, SAMHSA will review the comments, probably make changes to the guidelines, and then start them through the final process of internal review and release by the secretary of DHHS.
Smith said once the guidelines are put into effect, "each branch of the federal government will be permitted to use the new types of drug test." However, he added that government agencies using the new tests must do so correctly.
"If they decide to implement one of the new types of testing," he said, "they must follow the guideline to ensure quality drug testing results and correct interpretation of those results."
Although urine tests have been standard tests conducted by the government for years, the new drug tests have both "advantages and disadvantages" over the urine tests the government now conducts, Smith said.
One of the disadvantages of current urine testing, he said, is that there are difficulties with "chain of custody," when collecting urine. "Donating urine requires some privacy," he said.
Smith explained the federal drug-testing program requires the donor to go into a bathroom to collect urine. During this time, the collector cannot see this process except in special circumstances, he added. "Some officials are concerned that the donor might adulterate or dilute the specimen to avoid detecting drug use."
Collecting oral fluid, he said, doesn't present that problem. "The donor can put a small device in his or her mouth in the presence of the collector, and the collector can take the oral fluid specimen and send it to a laboratory for testing, keeping the chain of custody from collection through testing."
However, he added that a disadvantage of this type of testing is that some drugs cannot be detected in oral fluid for a very long time and the amounts of some drugs in oral fluid are very low.
"This increases the chance of testing error," he said. Also, marijuana, which he said is the most-abused drug and accounts for 70 percent of those who test positive, "is probably the most problematic drug to detect in oral fluid."
Hair samples also can be problematic. Smith said drugs can be detected in hair samples for a much longer period, but the department has "some issues with external contamination and hair color bias that need to be addressed before DoD would permit testing."
Although the drug testing procedures are new within DoD, Smith said that testing of hair and oral fluids is not new to many industries. He said there are a number of "unregulated" industries that have been using these newer drug tests for years.
"If you want to get a job dealing cards in Las Vegas casinos, you will probably have to have a cutting of hair tested for drugs before getting hired," he noted. "If you had an insurance physical recently, chances are the health technician who did your physical screen collected a saliva, now termed oral fluid, specimen that was sent to a laboratory for an HIV and drug screen."
Smith said the new testing procedures are important because many federal employees, including those in the military, are in "security or safety sensitive" jobs.
He said these employees are subject to random drug testing, but their organization at present can only test urine, which he said has some weaknesses.
"What DHHS is now doing is proposing to permit these new types of tests and to regulate their quality," he said.
Smith emphasized that the new types of test will not be implemented in DoD until they have gone through an internal process for approval, even after the new tests are permitted by DHHS.
"The internal process will include putting the new policy out for review by organization directors, employee unions and others before being implemented," the colonel said.