Undergoing a hair drug test can be a daunting prospect. The idea of being put under the spotlight to be scrutinised and judged is likely to elicit feelings of anxiety - especially when the results could alter the course of many lives.
Our experience is that many donors feel nervous about having a hair sample taken. This fear and anxiety is usually the result of a variety of factors. For some it’s simply a fear of the unknown; for others it’s a fear of a positive result whether genuine or false, and for many it’s the worry that they’ll be left with a bald patch on their scalp.
As a family lawyer, how you prepare your client for the test and subsequent analysis can make all the difference. Here’s how you can turn a fraught situation around...
The legal information
While collecting a hair sample is a relatively simple procedure, it is important to make your client aware of the legalities of the process. They need to understand that there are protocols to follow so that if everything doesn’t go according to plan, they know what will happen.
A good place to begin is explaining to your client exactly how the hair will be collected and who will do it.
For example, they may not be aware that hair will be cut near the scalp, rather than from the end. The reason for this is that the hair closest to the scalp is the newest hair, so is used to determine most recent drug usage.
Each centimetre of hair represents a month, so a 3cm sample should detect drug use over a three month period. You and your client should be aware that their hair needs to be long enough to cover the time period ordered by the court, for example if the court have asked for a test to cover the last 6 months then the donor ‘s hair needs to be at least 6cm long.
It is important your client is made fully aware that hair testing is highly effective in detecting historical drug use. This will leave them under no illusion that drugs taken months ago may not show up.
They may be reassured to learn that a trained collector or GP will be taking the sample. Your client may presume that only a single strand of hair will be taken; in fact the sample will need to be about the thickness of a shoelace.
Once the sample is collected, it will be wrapped in foil with the ‘root end’ identified to ensure the correct time periods are identified and then stored in a tamper-proof envelope. Their sample is also given a ‘unique barcode’ which ensures their sample cannot be mistaken for anyone else’s who may have similar personal details such as name and DOB. These measures are taken to guarantee the reliability of the sample. Ensuring your client knows all of these details prepares them for the veracity of the test and mitigates for any nasty surprises.
It’s also vital to inform them of the importance of the ‘chain of custody’. This term describes the process of the sample being collected, transported and processed in a reliable, trustworthy way. If the chain of custody is not adhered to or is doubted in any way, it may render the test non-viable. Again, a basic knowledge of this prepares your client for any potential pitfalls in the process.
A crucial part of the chain of custody can be the witness statement. While you, as their lawyer, can oversee the taking of the sample, you won’t be present for the testing or analysis. A witness statement details what takes place over the course of the test, including the results and interpretation of those results.
It’s a good idea to inform your client of this part of the process. This will reassure them that you and in turn, they, are not kept in the dark after giving a sample, but that the entire procedure is documented and verified. Explain to your client that the witness statement legitimises the test so that it can be used in court.
The obvious focus for your client is likely to be the result of the test. Reassure them that the results will be analysed by highly trained clinicians and toxicologists who are able to interpret the results accurately. They will also take into account any factors which may affect the results, such as hair colour, use of medication and ambient exposure to drugs.
The personal touch
Although it may be tempting to sugar-coat the facts, being clear and unambiguous is the best approach in the long run. Be direct about why your client is having to undergo the test, how and when it will happen, and what the possible outcomes might be.
Make sure you talk about accuracy and the efficacy of hair tests. They may be under the impression that a hair test is like a urine or saliva test and will only detect recent drug use. Hair testing is able to detect substance use over months rather than days, and is therefore much more likely to detect intermittent use. Making sure your client knows this prior to the test lets them know where they stand.
If they’ve never had a drugs test before, let them know about the different methods. Explain that hair testing is less invasive and more accurate than blood or urine testing. However, be prepared for the fact that this accuracy may be a concern for your client.
Even if they know they haven’t used any drugs during the time-frame in question, simply being tested can create a fear of being ‘caught out’. Put them at ease by letting them know that the accuracy of a hair test works both ways: if no drugs are detected, the results are unequivocal.
One of the biggest anxieties around hair testing is that sample collection will leave a bald patch on the scalp. While this fear is understandable, it is also entirely unfounded. Collectors are trained to guarantee there is no visible trace of hair removal. Reinforcing the fact that their hair and scalp will look exactly the same as they do currently should relieve any anxiety around this issue.
Anything you can say to demystify the process of hair drug testing is likely to help your client feel less anxious. So it might help to explain a bit of the science behind hair testing. While there’s no need to get too bogged down in the technicalities, taking them through the basics of what happens to their hair sample will help to put them at ease. It’s therefore important that your own knowledge of the entire process is up to scratch.
Being prepared to answer your client’s questions is essential to ensuring they feel calm and comfortable. They are relying on you to be in control, so make sure you’re equipped to answer any questions they have.
If appropriate you could try lightening the mood by telling your client a few anecdotes about how people have tried to cheat the hair test. From wearing a wig to shaving heads - the slightly comical failed attempts to evade testing might help to put a smile on your client’s face.
None of us like being scrutinised; it makes us feel vulnerable and powerless. When it comes to drug testing, there is the added anxiety of what the results might mean for the individual in question and the rest of their family.
As a family lawyer, you can’t do anything about the results, but you can help to make the process more comfortable and less traumatic for your client by making sure they’re not kept in the dark.
You can learn more about hair testing in family law and how you can prepare your client for a test by reading our in-depth e-book.