Drug and alcohol tests come in various forms including blood, urine, oral fluid and hair tests. Each of these tests have their own specific properties, ranging from the ease or difficulty of sampling to the window of detection they assess.
The trouble is that it’s often quite difficult to know which test is the most appropriate for your particular case. This can be particularly frustrating when you’re trying to find the most cost-effective and efficient testing method.
We’ve outlined some of the different properties of drug and alcohol testing methods and how each method may be better suited for certain situations, helping you to get a better understanding of which method is best suited for your needs.
Different tests for different situations
Different drug and alcohol tests have their own merits and tend to be more appropriate for particular circumstances i.e. workplace testing versus family law cases.
For example, hair, urine and saliva testing are frequently used in the workplace for pre-employment testing to screen potential employees or mid-employment testing to assess drug use based on complaints from co-workers.
In particular, urine testing is quite a popular method for workplace testing as it’s cost-effective and can assess acute drug use, so a company doesn’t need to break the bank when testing multiple employees. One of the drawbacks however is that a particular individual may have a shy bladder, making it difficult for them to produce the specimen on demand.
It’s a similar case with saliva testing, which is also a cost-effective method but anxiety within the donor often causes dry-mouth, which can increase the time taken to collect the sample.
This is where hair testing can be an excellent alternative. Although it’s more expensive, it’s a lot less invasive to sample and can assess drug intake over a significantly longer period of time compared to alternative methods. In fact, a single 1 cm hair test can be equivalent to 4 to 5 sequential urine tests because it covers a longer period of time in one test. If you want to be really sure you’re not missing a user, this is the way to go. When considered in this way hair tests may not be so expensive; it all depends on why you are doing the test.
In Family Court cases, Judges often specifically request that a hair strand test is used. Where the welfare of a child is potentially at-risk, courts often need to determine the historical drug and alcohol use of parents in order to come to the most appropriate decision regarding custody of the child or access rights.
Hair testing is particularly useful in family court cases as when the whole process (from sampling to transportation to analysis) is carefully controlled and monitored, the results produced are legally robust and can hold up in court as evidence. For example, maintaining integrity in the chain of custody and getting an accredited laboratory to conduct the test are 2 ways to ensure the results hold up in court.
Window of detection required
One of the main factors affecting the choice of drug and alcohol test is the period of time you need to assess drug use i.e. do you need to assess drug use over the last few days or the last few months?
Blood, urine and saliva tests are much better suited to assess acute drug intake. Blood tests can assess what drugs are currently in the system, urine tests assess what’s been in the system in the last 5 days, and saliva tests can assess drug and alcohol use within the last 2 days.
For example, in the workplace if an individual suspect’s that one of their co-workers has recently used cannabis in the last few days and reports this to management, an employer may ask the suspected employee to take a urine test.
Hair testing on the other hand is able to assess drug and alcohol use stretching back over the previous 12 months, depending on the length of hair. Hair tends to grow at around 1cm per month, with each centimetre reflecting drug use over a 1-month period. So 3cm of hair can show drug and alcohol use in the previous 3 months.
Advantages of hair testing include the ability to assess the pattern of drug use over time. Also, if you get a negative hair test result you’re much more sure that the donor is not a user. When it comes to cheating a test, hair tests are much more difficult to subvert than a urine test.
An example of how hair testing is applied in family law cases could be to assess parental drug use. A parent may have a heroin addiction and so could be prescribed methadone as a method of treatment. The court may order a hair test to assess drug use over the previous 3 months to decide whether the parent can gain access to their children. Over this period of testing, a reduction in the amount of heroin metabolites and an increase in the amount of methadone metabolites found in the shafts of hair tested would indicate that the individual is adhering to their treatment regime and is indeed reducing their heroin use.
Essentially, each drug testing method has its own window of detection that makes it more appropriate for particular circumstances.
Overall, different drug testing methods possess certain qualities that make them more suited for particular circumstances i.e. testing acute drug use in the workplace versus testing long-term drug use in a parent for family court proceedings. Ultimately, it’s best to gather all the facts surrounding the need for a drug test before committing to a particular method in order to ensure you select the right one.