October 2017

Drug testing explained: where, how and who?

For several decades now, drug testing has been an intrusive but accepted part of our lives, whether being asked to blow into a bag, hand over a jar of urine, tug strands of hair from our head or lick a lollypop at work, designed to catch our saliva.

Mostly, drug testing is designed to keep us safe – at work and on the roads, especially – but the Deputy Director of the National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction (NCETA), Dr Ken Pidd, has a few reservations.

“If you could draw blood from the artery, that’s the best way to accurately know what’s affecting your body,” he says, however such tests are intrusive and complicated. Instead, a breath test is an easier and less traumatic way of looking for alcohol in your system.

“There is sufficient research to indicate that a breath analysis device is a reliable detector of how much alcohol in in your blood,” Ken says. “But it’s different with other forms of testing.

Urine, saliva and hair testing are all indicators of past drug use.”

In fact, almost every form of testing tells whether you have consumed drugs in the past – but how long ago did you use them? Long enough ago that the drugs may no longer actually be impairing your ability to drive, work or perform other functions?

While a great deal of research has proven that 0.05 is a reliable marker at which most people will be impaired by the amount of alcohol in their system, the same is not true for other drugs, such as cannabis. Instead, Ken points out, “There is no level (with cannabis) like 0.05 with alcohol to indicate impairment. Cut points are not for impairment, just the likelihood of a true positive test. It’s not whether the person is impaired.”

Ken says that analysis of a urine test cannot tell if a detected drug is active now, in your blood stream. It only registers past drug use. “Cannabis THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) is unusual in that it stays in your system for many days,” he says. “Metabolites store in your body fat so you could be a one-off user but, depending on the dose and how active you are, how much fat there is on your body … if you were a lounge lizard who didn’t drink a lot of water, it might be a week afterwards that the cannabis is still detectable. On that basis, it’s a very unreliable indicator of potential impairment.”

The most convenient indicator of whether you have drugs in your system right now is a lollipop mouth swab, to pick up everything from saliva to vegetative matter from a joint in your teeth to readings from the very shallow blood vessels present in your lips. It’s why workplaces often ask workers to take an oral swab before their shift, something that Ken and union officials are okay with if it’s purely for worker safety. But many start to worry if it’s more punitive than protective.

Dr Gerry Ayers from the CFMEU says it was a standard part of the job for his union’s safety representatives and shop stewards to be watching for any workers who didn’t seem to be in a good head space, for whatever reason. Fatigue or inadequate training were much more likely to lead to workplace accidents than workers rocking up to the site with drugs or alcohol in their system, he says, but tests could be ordered if a worker’s behaviour justified concern.

“It took us three years to get a testing procedure in place,” Gerry says. “Our safety reps have a big role. They are qualified in the testing procedure – not to do the tests but to know it is being done correctly. It’s not about ‘catching’ people. It’s about putting your hand up and saying if you have a problem, so we can help. We’ve had three or four cases where workers have come to us and we’ve helped them with counselling, detox and rehab and they’ve been able to reunite with their families and return to well-paid work.”

The Chief Executive of the Australian Industry Group (Ai Group), Innes Willox, says the ability to conduct workplace drug and alcohol testing was a key requirement for employers to effectively manage safety risks in the workplace.

“Ai Group members tell us consistently that it is near impossible to tell whether an employee is under the influence of ice without formal drug and alcohol testing,” Innes says.

“Such testing contributes to safety by enabling employers to remove persons affected by drugs from the workplace.”

The choice of testing regime was dependent on the specific safety risks present in particular workplaces, Innes says, adding: “Some employers use random testing while others test ‘for cause’ where an incident or suspicion arises. Some employers adopt urine testing, and others apply oral testing.”

If you are concerned and think you haven’t been using, get an independent assessment. Even labs are not 100 per cent accurate.

Dr Ken Pidd

Dr Ken Pidd

Dr Ken Pidd says he would advise anybody who records a positive drug or alcohol test, at work or at a roadside test, to ask for their own independent sample. “If you are concerned and think you haven’t been using, get an independent assessment. Even labs are not 100 per cent accurate.

“Workplace testing is for safety but the problem is for any of them to comply with Australian standards, if there’s a positive on site, it has to be sent to a laboratory for confirmation. It’s the same with police roadside drug tests. They’ll pull you over, test you with a lollipop and then, if you record a positive, will take you to the roadside van and test you again with a more complex analysis device. It’s like a mini lab print out. If that is positive, it is sent to the lab for analysis.

“The chain of custody must be done correctly. All documents must be ticked off. It has to be ok in court.”

In the same way, Ken says workplaces conduct their own tests but the same chain of custody and stringent properly assessed evidence needs to apply.

“If you are recorded as positive, check on that. You have the right to ask for a sample for independent testing,” Ken says.

The other major problem with all forms of testing is that opioids are not detected and, even where they can be, a letter from a doctor, saying you have a condition such as narcolepsy, could be enough to see you drive on.

“A lot more people are driving on opioids than cannabis but roadside testing doesn’t detect for opioids,” Ken says. “In the workplace, opioids can come up on a test, but you can’t tell if it’s a legal or illegal opioid until it’s tested in the lab.”

Of course, amphetamines are a problem for a percentage of workers and drivers, as they are across wider society, and it was as a response to concerns about these creeping onto building sites a decade ago that opened the door to workplace drug tests.

“A lot of people were genuinely concerned for workers’ wellbeing and safety,” Ken says. “That’s where testing has focused, on keeping people safe.”

Nick Place

Locations and types of drug testing include:

Roadside drug testing (exact procedures vary around Australia, but the below is indicative):

  • Saliva sample first analysed at the roadside.
  • Those with an initial positive report are asked to take a further test and if this is positive the sample is sent to a laboratory for confirmation.
  • Limitations: the current roadside saliva tests do not detect opioids (including heroin and methadone, but also prescription opioids), cocaine, common medicines such as cold and flu tablets nor new psychoactive substances (drugs that have been designed to mimic established illicit drugs, such as cannabis, cocaine, ecstasy and LSD) such as those sold under the marketing names “bath salts”, “kronic” and other names. Saliva testing does not detect current intoxication/impairment levels.

Workplace drug testing:

  • May include saliva testing and/or urine testing.
  • Limitations: urine testing usually tests for alcohol, amphetamines, benzodiazepines, opiates, cannabinoids and cocaine. This means the urine testing does not detect use of new psychoactive substances nor does it detect current intoxication/impairment levels.

Welfare drug testing:

  • Under the welfare drug testing trial 5000 new recipients of Newstart Allowance and Youth Allowance will be tested over the two-year trial period across three locations: Canterbury-Bankstown (NSW), Logan (QLD) and Mandurah (WA).
  • The type of testing to be used is yet to be announced but the Government has indicated a range of testing types will be used.

The law, justice and corrections:

  • Hair analysis, urine testing and other tests are known to be used in family law cases to support or refute a claim of chronic use of legal and/or illegal drugs.
  • Various types of drug testing are used to comply with drug court orders and correctional orders.

Other types of testing:

  • Hair testing: limitations include it can’t be used to determine levels of drugs use, recent drug use (within seven days) nor current intoxication/impairment levels. It is generally not possible to use hair analysis to reliably detect very low levels of drug use (i.e. 2-3 times per month).
  • Breath testing: can only detect alcohol use and can’t test for “hangover effects” which can still impact on workplace and driving safety after blood alcohol levels have returned to zero.

Sweat testing: is reported to be highly unreliable and cannot detect recent use nor intoxication/impairment levels.