Hair testing offers a powerful, accurate means of testing for drug or alcohol use. The method is simple, well-established and easily accessible for all parties in family law cases. To use a hair test as a witness, it is essential to understand the method and its benefits, and where other testing methods may be more appropriate. Doing so may determine whether your hair testing result stands up in court.
To help family lawyers who are considering using hair tests, we’ve put together a list of the questions we most frequently hear from first-time users.
1. How accurate is hair testing?
In short, hair testing can prove the ingestion of drugs or alcohol over months beyond any doubt. There are conditions attached to this, however.
Hair tests can only detect drug or alcohol use after seven days. The toxicologist assessing the hair sample must be notified of several factors around the test, including whether the donor has bleached their hair, claims to have been in the presence of others using drugs, or has used medication. Confirming the identity of the donor is essential – as is informing the toxicologist about the natural colour of the donor’s hair.
Also, some hair testing laboratories perform more rigorous, reliable tests than others. Some laboratories use the immunoassay method, which confirms the presence of a substance, and is therefore useful for screening out negatives – that is, where a donor has not used drugs or alcohol. Cansford Labs tests every sample using LC-MS/MS – liquid chromatography with mass-spectrometry – for accurate results. LC-MS/MS is a two-step process which breaks down the hair sample and then confirms the presence of a substance specifically, with no margin of error.
2. What substances can hair testing detect?
Hair tests can detect the ingestion of alcohol and all types of drugs. However, certain laboratories only test for certain substances. The key groups generally associated with family law cases are:
- Cocaine group: Benzoylecgonine, Cocaine, Cocaethylene, Norcocaine
- Opiates group: 6-Acetylmorphine, Codeine, Dihydrocodeine, Morphine, Heroin
- Methadone group: Methadone, EDDP
- Tramadol group: Tramadol, Desmethyl Tramadol
- Amphetamine group: Amphetamine
- Benzodiazepines group: Diazepam, Nordiazepam, Lorazepam, Nitrazepam, Oxazepam, Temazepam
- Cannabinoids group: THC, Cannabinol, Cannabidiol, THC-Carboxylic Acid (THC-COOH)
- Mephedrone group: Mephedrone, Methamphetamine group: Methamphetamine, MDMA, MDA, MDEA, MBDB
- Ketamine group: Ketamine, Norketamine
- Alcohol markers: ETG, FAEE (Ethyl-Myristate, Ethyl-Oleate, Ethyl-Stearate, Ethyl-Palmitate)
3. How much does a hair test cost?
Hair drug tests are typically more expensive than blood, urine and oral fluid (saliva) tests, costing between £250 and £1000 per sample. This figure will increase if testing for more than one substance is required, if the window for detection – the period of drug or alcohol use – is further back in time, and if multiple tests are required for different time periods.
4. How long do hair test results take to process?
We guarantee to return hair test results five working days after the sample is taken. Other laboratories can take up to two weeks to do so.
5. How do I ensure my hair test results stand up in court?
Parties wanting to use the results of a drug test in court must obtain the court’s permission to conduct the test before submitting their findings as evidence.
To prevent the validity of test results being questioned, family lawyers should ensure their testing laboratory is UKAS ISO/IEC 17025-accredited. This accreditation confirms the chain of custody is protected for all hair test samples, during collection, handling and analysis. You can find out more about accreditation here, and about our own accreditation here.
Also, ask whether the laboratory belongs to the Society of Hair Testing Proficiency Scheme. This requires laboratories to share and compare their test results with others, and publicise the results.
6. How are hair samples collected – and can this be done by anyone?
Samples for hair testing should comprise a 5mm-thick clipping of hair cut from the scalp. If the donor is bald, hair from elsewhere in the body can be used. This sample is then transferred to a special tamper-proof envelope – provided by the testing laboratory – and then sealed, before transfer.
It is essential that hair samples are taken under controlled conditions, to maintain the chain of custody and ensure accurate testing. For this reason, Cansford Laboratories recommends samples are taken by our own trained collectors or a GP in their own surgery. The rigour which a laboratory demands from their collectors is a good indicator of the reliability of the laboratory itself.
7. Can hair testing prove a donor has stopped using a substance?
Hair tests can prove an individual has stopped using a drug or alcohol after a set amount of time. This is because donors with heavy use will retain traces of the substance in their body long after having used – typically 10–15% of the initial concentration. These traces take up to four months to disappear from new hair on the scalp. Toxicologists performing the hair test will flag this issue and consider it in their analysis of any test result.
8. When should I use hair testing, as opposed to blood, urine or oral fluid (saliva) testing?
In the first instance, family lawyers should choose their drug or alcohol test method according to the time and duration of the substance use to be tested for. Hair tests can be used to accurately detect drug or alcohol use after seven days, for up to 12 months. Blood testing, on the other hand, can detect immediate drug or alcohol use – that is, when the donor has used either substance within hours. Urine and oral fluid (saliva) test detect substance between a half-day and five days after use. The cost of each test method and the conditions required for successful sample collection should be considered after the time factors.
Understanding the hair testing method is essential to creating a successful witness in cases involving drug and alcohol use. For more information on hair testing, including costs, comparisons to other testing methods and factors affecting test accuracy, download our new ebook – The Complete Guide to Hair Drug and Alcohol Testing.
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