Who tests the world’s police for drug abuse?

Lolita Tsanaclis

Lolita Tsanaclis

on Jul 27, 2017


When it comes to tackling drugs and alcohol-related crime, our police force is doing a sterling job. Home Office figures show that in 2015/2016, the number of drug seizures in England and Wales was 11% lower than the previous year, with a 13% fall in the number of police-recorded drug offences over the same period.

Our police force is working hard to tackle the issues that substance abuse causes, but working in such a stressful role can mean officers use drugs or alcohol to cope. That said, Metropolitan Police testing from 2011 showed just 27 positive results of 13,000 tests: it appears that the issue in the UK may well be under control.

Good policing - no matter where in the world - requires focus, the ability to make snap judgments, and peak performance at all times. Without rigorous drug and alcohol testing policies in place, is this really possible? Here, we investigate who tests the police for substance abuse, when such testing occurs, and how this varies across the globe.

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In Australia, there are different regulations for different state police forces.

In New South Wales, for example, random drug and alcohol testing is the norm in both the police force and amongst policing students. For students, alcohol testing is conducted via breath tests, with a concentration of 0.02 or more of alcohol in 210 litres of breath constituting a positive test. Random drug testing uses urine analysis, which is tested for prohibited drugs as defined by the Drug Misuse and Trafficking Act 1985.

Police workers in New South Wales may also be subject to targeted drug and alcohol testing, if their superiors have reasonable cause to believe they are under the influence. Here, breath testing is used to measure alcohol levels, while either urine or hair can be used to test for illegal drugs and/or anabolic steroids.

In South Australia, however, drug testing after critical incidents (with reasonable suspicion) was only introduced in 2016, along with testing for those applying for policing roles. This shift came after a decade of calls to test SA police who act dangerously, but the new regulations raised some concern. Even if a member of the public had cause to believe that dangerous police actions could have been caused by drugs or alcohol, testing is only carried out if a fellow officer believes there is cause for concern.

In Tasmania, until recently, police drug tests have only taken place in critical situations or under targeted circumstances. Now, though, the Tasmanian police force is subject to random saliva testing, conducted by an independent contractor.

The Tasmanian approach of using an independent contractor seems more reliable than the South Australian approach of “police policing themselves”. The difference between random testing by an independent and self-policing could well act as a greater deterrent to those tempted towards substance abuse - but this is not the norm in other nations, as we will come to see.


In April 2012, the Police Regulations 2003 were updated to include Regulation 19(A). This covers testing for substance misuse in the police force.

Police officers may be tested in four specific situations:

  • if an officer is on a probation period
  • if their Chief Officer has reasonable cause to suspect the use of a controlled drug
  • if an officer is deemed vulnerable due to a specific responsibility for dealing with drugs
  • if an officer is selected for random drug testing.

Substances covered by these regulations include amphetamines (including ecstasy), cannabis, cocaine, opiates and benzodiazepines.

Officers may also be selected for random alcohol breath testing. The results are deemed positive if breath alcohol levels are higher than 13 microgrammes of alcohol in 100 millilitres of breath.

Testing is carried out with no advance notice, and only amongst officers who are on duty. The official regulations state that testing is to be carried out using “a sample of oral fluid or urine”. However, pre-employment hair testing is being used in a number of police forces across the UK, from Surrey to Derbyshire: a testing method that offers ‘lifestyle’ information about a candidate, potentially avoiding issues further down the road when job stress inevitably increases.

In the UK, police drug tests are requested by the forces themselves when required: as in some Australian states, testing is mostly only conducted when suitable suspicion has been raised. Again here, random, independent drug testing may help to reduce the incidence of substance abuse still further. However, in other countries, such as the US, there has been resistance to such an approach.


Every state has its own police department, with its own rules and guidelines. In general, officers are only tested when applying for a position with their jurisdiction’s police force.

In Pittsburgh in 2015, the police union filed a civil rights grievance, stating that forced mandatory drug testing was not only a violation of their contract, but also of the Constitution.

The Phoenix Police Department, for example, use urinalysis during their hiring process, but the same police department shut down its steroid testing policy in 2014 due to the costs involved in liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry testing. The LAPD, on the other hand, simply states that a pre-employment drug test “may be required”.

Some jurisdictions may employ drug and alcohol testing in specified circumstances, such as after discharging a weapon or being involved in a car chase - but again, these situations are inconsistent across the country.

In 2016, the New York Daily News questioned current procedures, asking why athletes are banned from competing or stripped from their titles after mandatory drug tests, but law enforcement officers are generally only tested when applying for their role. The NYDN comments:

“More than almost any non-athletic profession in America, policing, particularly in the field, requires a serious level of focus, acuity, agility, coordination and fitness. Unlike athletes, police officers are armed and deputized to use lethal force whenever they feel it is required to do their job safely. Unlike athletes, police also face a heavily armed society. Drug use — be it cocaine, marijuana, steroids, HGH or even alcohol — could seriously impact an officer's performance.”

It is clear that there is at least some appetite for random, independent drug testing amongst US officers - but can the resistance to this approach be overcome?

In summary

In such a public role, and with police under more scrutiny than ever, public confidence in police officers is paramount. Regular workplace drug testing for illicit substances and steroids would go some way to ensuring police officers’ wellbeing, public confidence, and a vital role performed to the best of the officers’ abilities.

The question is, how should this testing be conducted, and by who? It is clear that one-off testing at the time of recruitment should not be the norm. Instead, officers should be required to undergo regular testing that gives a long term view of their fitness to serve: a view that can be gained via hair testing.

Police drug and alcohol testing procedures in the UK are a world away from those employed in the US where - perhaps understandably - concerns have been raised over the current approach to drug and alcohol testing. The LAPD came under fire in 2006 for relaxing its hiring policies, allowing those with a history of drug use to join the force, while previous surveys have shown alarmingly high proportions of US police officers with problem drinking behaviours. In Australia, things are different still, with individual states making their own rules.

In police forces across the globe, it may be that a two-fold approach is the best bet. While internal testing may suit day-to-day, “fit to work” random testing, hair testing by an independent contractor will offer the best longer term survey of lifestyle for both recruitment and rehabilitation, and would cement both public confidence, and the importance of ensuring that officers are at peak fitness and performance levels

Lolita Tsanaclis

Lolita Tsanaclis

Dr. Lolita Tsanaclis, Chief Scientific Officer of Cansford Laboratories Limited, has been developing methods for the analysis of drugs in hair since 1993. She has been involved in drug testing using hair, blood and oral fluid samples for medico-legal and workplace sectors for over three decades. Dr Tsanaclis is published extensively as author and as co-author in highly regarded peer-reviewed publications and scientific presentations.

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