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

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.

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