Hair testing for drugs and alcohol is a purely scientific endeavour: using immunoassay, mass spectrometry and liquid chromatography to isolate drugs, identify drug use, and investigate the truth of a case. But for family lawyers, social workers and the legal system, the method is less important than the meaning.
So, let’s look at some real world cases we’ve worked on in the lab, the results of the testing, and what they meant for the case itself.
Although many of these cases have gone through the courts, we’ve made the decision to withhold names for privacy.
Case 1: Criminal case
The story: In 2013, a father stabbed his son after drinking two pints of beer in a local pub. The father was arrested, and his son hospitalised. Shortly after he was imprisoned, the father said he had hallucinations and claimed he could see crawling things on the walls of his cell. His wife called Cansford Labs the day after the arrest and explained the case for the criminal proceedings. The son had tried to drop the charges, but the police wouldn’t allow it.
The testing: We analysed the father’s hair sample and detected low levels of MDA (an ecstasy-like drug) in the period covering the event.
The result: Based on the findings, the father was acquitted.
Case 2: Child protection
The story: A Plymouth mother was accused of putting Tramadol in her one-year-old daughter's milk in a bid to calm the baby down. There were also claims that she used the drug to keep her daughter ill so she could claim benefits for longer and feed her own Tramadol addiction.
The testing: We took hair samples from the one-year-old. The sample showed she had had Tramadol in her system for some months, and established the prescription drug could not have been found in Jones' breast milk at the high levels recorded unless it was added.
The result: She pleaded guilty to child cruelty, drug possession and perverting the course of justice, and was jailed for seven years and two months.
Case 3: Child protection
The story: We had a request from Social Services in 2015 to analyse the hair of a 22-month-old toddler whose mother they suspected of being a heavy drug user.
The testing: Our analysis showed levels of cocaine and mephedrone in the toddler over a six-month period clearly illustrating that the mother was a drug user. However, with every case we need to make sure the result is accurate beyond reasonable doubt, so we tested the hair sample for the possibility of external contamination. The test came back negative, indicating that the child ingested the drugs. It was not possible to know whether the mother deliberately gave drugs to the child or that the toddler ingested the drugs that were careless left in the environment.
The result: Either way, the mother was negligent and culpable. The child was eventually removed from the home.
Case 4: Lost licenses returned
The story: Having been pulled over by the police in 2015, two individuals had their driving licenses withdrawn because of drug driving. One tested positive for opiates and the second for opiates and therapeutic amphetamine, which had been declared. The court ruled that they have their licenses taken away for two years.
The testing: When their review came around again, we were able to ascertain not just whether drugs were in their system now, but over the previous 3-6 months too. The hair testing confirmed that they had stopped using the drugs and helped prove their innocence.
The result: Both had their licenses back.
Case 5: Nurse wrongly accused of still using drugs
The story: A nurse who admitted using drugs in the past was tested positive by another hair testing lab that reported levels below recommended cutoffs.
The testing: We conducted month-by-month analysis for benzodiazepines over a six-month period. The other laboratory found levels equal to their LOQ (limit of quantitation) under their cutoff level. This can not suggest that a person is still using.
The result: The test and and explanatory report issued by Cansford explained the results in view of the consensus cutoff recommended by the SoHT for current drug use, and the nurse was reinstated.
Featured image via adobestock/George Wada