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Drug Screens – Cheaters, Beaters and Scam Defeaters
By Mike Grosh and Steve Barber

Drug screening for employment and the courts has been with us for nearly twenty years and many statistics have been garnered over that period of time. Depending on the segment, something like one to five percent of screens will produce positive results for one or more substances. One statistic that is lacking, however, is the number of active substance abusers who routinely pass drug tests. As the saying goes, their name is legion.

Common strategies for beating drug tests:

  1. Substitution with clean urine.  Substitution can be accomplished by something as simple as a baggy full of clean urine or having another individual take the test on behalf of the directed examinee, to the more sophisticated commercial products available over the internet such as synthetic concentrated urine or the “urinator,” a small electronic module that maintains water within the correct testing temperature range for mixing with synthetic urine.
  2. Detoxification products. Several internet products claim to be able to “detoxify,” an individual so that he or she will produce a clean sample. Products such as “Absolute Detox. “ “Absolute Detox XXL, or “Green Clean,” claim to eliminate or mask toxins that would be produced in the urine.
  3. Adulterants.  Like Detoxification products, additives that are advertised as able to mask toxins in the urine are commonly available over the internet.  Instant Clean Add-it-ive and Urine Luck are two such products.
  4. Adding water or watering up. Examinees will sometime try to dilute the specimen beyond the detection limits by drinking copious amounts of water prior to testing or actually adding water to the urine sample before it is surrendered to the collection technician.
  5. Avoid giving a specimen. Shy bladder syndrome, a real medical condition, is uncommon. On the other hand, many examinees often claim they have this problem. The examinee simply can’t, or claims he cannot urinate. Missing the bus, losing the referral form, forgetting ID, or indignant outbursts and charging out the door are all common strategies.
  6. Using drugs not tested for. Many times the test panel, or list of substances tested for is limited. The so called SAMHSA five which is mandated by the federal government for truckers, corrections officers, pilots and other high risk groups tests for Marijuana, Cocaine, Opiates, Amphetamines, and PCP only. A common substitution drug is, of course, alcohol – both legal and every bit as lethal as any street or abused prescription drug. Ecstasy and other synthetics such as Oxycontin are common substitute drugs as are many sleeping aids, tranquilizers, antidepressants and pain medicines. In fact, even where the list of drugs tested for is extensive, there are always substitutes.
  7. Abstinence. It is a simple idea that is often overlooked but the fact is, most substances are metabolized out of the system within 48-72 hours. If an examinee has sufficient prior notice it is possible just to lay off for a couple of days and appear clean as the driven snow. The notable exception here is with the Marijuana metabolite. Because THC is stored in the fat rather than the urine it takes longer to metabolize out of the system and can be detected for up to 30 after the last use depending on pattern of use, body weight and other factors.

Means to combat strategies are as many a varied as the strategies to avoid detection.

  1. Observed Specimens: In this strategy a same sex technician actually observes the flow of urine from the examinee thereby eliminating the possibility of substitution. The key word here is observed.  In many cases the observation is simply not close enough and small tube or artificial genitals can provide a substituted sample right under the technician’s eyes.
  2. Clinical procedures. Testing for temperature and specific gravity at the collection site will detect most substituted urine samples or adulterants.  Additional tests are performed on the specimen at the laboratory to check for adulterants.  Samples found to have been tampered with are reported as such and many organizations, especially the courts, will generally treat the sample as positive.
  3. Changing technologies.  A common strategy here is to require oral fluids or hair testing as an alternative to urine.

Oral fluids testing is especially effective where it is not possible or desirable to perform observed urine collection. The technician swabs the inside of the examinee's cheek and tests the fluids thereby secured. Non-invasive and with no privacy issues, oral fluids are virtually impossible to beat through substitution, adulteration, detoxification, or shy bladder.

Hair testing will detect substance use for a period of time extending up to ninety days.  Short of removing all body hair, there is no way to mask the presence of substance in the sample. Where there is a suspicion of substitution, tampering, or simply abstaining for short periods of time, hair test are a good option.

  1. Random Management Programs.  Not commonly seen but very effective are programs of true random management. Under these programs an examinee is simply directed to call a management center regularly, usually daily, to ascertain whether or not they are required to screen that day. They are given no information as to when or how often they may be directed to screen.  Random Management, combined with sufficient number of screens, observed specimens, good clinical checks and balances and the right technology are virtually impossible to beat over an extended period of time
  1. Substance Abuse Assessment.  One very important factor in substance abuse management is to know as much about the individual as possible in order to select the right program of drug screening. Though largely underutilized, Assessment can identify patterns, social conditions and personality components that will help define the correct approach to drug screening. Another advantage of Assessment is that it allows for a broader view than simply that which is determined through testing.

In most instances, routine beating of drug testing programs is the fault of the program or the individuals administrating the program.  Some common mistakes are:

  1. Testing for a limited number of substances. Some organizations, in order to save money, may test for a few as two or three substances, typically marijuana, cocaine and opiates. When one considers the wide variety of intoxicants out there it is easy to see how a chronic substance abuser could pass for clean indefinitely.
  2. Employing the wrong procedures. Non-observed urine specimens, loosely controlled samples,  announced and scheduled screens or too large a window for screening,  random management programs too transparently scheduled so that the individual can accurately predict testing dates, render many drug screening programs completely ineffective.
  3. Employing the wrong technology. Using urine testing to detect alcohol intoxication, using technologies with too narrow a substance panel for the constituency, using “instant,” tests without the confirming backup of laboratory testing, using breathalyzer testing in an attempt to determine chronic alcohol use are common errors seen in the industry.

So, can drug screening programs be beat? You bet, let me count the ways. Can the efforts to thwart cheaters limit the success of those cheaters? Without question. In the final analysis, a program's effectiveness or lack thereof, is directly proportionate to the expertise of the individuals developing and running the programs. One search of Google for “pass a drug screen,” is enough to tell you that there is lots of information out there among the individuals being tested so it only stands to reason that individuals charged with insuring effective drug testing programs need to be equally informed. Too often, that is not the case, and so the probability of a large number of substances abusers going undetected is high. 

If your knowledge level of drug screening is shaky, it is obviously a good idea to talk to an expert. But even if you are secure in your knowledge of the nuances of drug screening, talking to an expert can give you that additional level of confidence you need.

© copyright 2008 Span Corporation

Mike Grosh is President, and Steve Barber is Director of Testing Service for Span Corporation, a national provider of drug screen and background investigation Third Party Administration services. Span Corporation headquarters are located at 1505 White St Ann Arbor MI 48103. Mike, Steve and Span Corporation can be reached at 734-623-7726 or Website URL:

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