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April 11, 2005 - The Guardian (UK)

Testing Times

By John Sutherland, The Guardian

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

It's hard not to feel a sneaking sympathy for Tom Sizemore. An actor of moderate talents and bad habits, Tom is one of the hundreds of thousands of Californians obliged to take a daily drug test. In his case it's a condition of probation. Clean pee: stay free.

For others, with no criminal record, the morning bottle is as routine as the metal detector and full-body wipedown at the airport. The amount of urine provided daily by the drug-tested of California would float the Queen Mary (currently at anchor in Long Beach).

Schoolchildren are tested. So are transport employees, job applicants, athletes, cops, prisoners; indeed, any employee in a "drug-free workplace" that intends to protect itself against negligence suits.

For his daily sample, Sizemore slung an artificial penis called the "Whizzinator" round his loins and whizzed hopefully. No luck. The probation officer wasn't fooled (perhaps there was more size than usual). There is plentiful lore among kids about how to pass, fake or spoil the test. In the days when I was an anxious parent in California, one knew that drug-wise offspring often used LSD in preference to marijuana because "fry" was flushed out of the system in a day, whereas weed lingered in the urine for a month.

Clean piddle is traditionally supplied by girlfriends. Keeping the stuff at a precise 95 degrees is a problem (the canny parent wields a thermometer). Ten seconds in the microwave will do it - but that can be awkward. There is matching awkwardness for the parent. Prince Charles might have no qualms about a flunky pressing a flask to HRH John Thomas, but few adults like to accompany children to the toilet and fiddle with their private parts - it can lead to ugly accusations.

You can't (yet) reliably do the testing at home and there has been a boom in Nida (National Institute of Drug Abuse) certified labs, which offer standard Emit (Enzyme Multiple Immunoassay Test) urinalysis at a few cents. You get what you pay for, of course, and pennies won't get you state-of-the-art testing.

Professional athletes - with princely salaries at stake - cheat best.The baseball stars, whose drug-enhanced performances have recently scandalised fans, were caught not by testers but by their main suppliers being busted.

The most strenuous drug tests are faced by workers in the casino industry, which uses hair and saliva screening - expensive but more reliable than urinalysis. Human hair contains an archaeological record of (virtually ) any illegal substance taken - going back years, if the strands are long enough. Saliva tests can be done with maximum randomness, on the spot. And no Whizzinator shenanigans.

The web has become a battleground between the testers, offering ever more unbeatable tests, and the cheaters, offering ever more effective flushing. The site for example, will send you their "30-Minute Quick Shot" for a mere $89+pp. It is, they claim, "the fastest-working urine cleanser of its kind anywhere for heavy toxin use". For similar sums, you can buy "detoxifying" shampoos and "Spit 'N' Kleen Mouthwash" for saliva tests.

Do they work? Pharmacologists I have spoken to doubt it. But authorities are taking no chances. As governor of Texas, George Bush outlawed "products with the sole purpose of creating negative results on urine tests".

More interesting than the hucksters are the libertarian websites that instruct how to cheat out of pure idealism. For example, blazons a motto from Abraham Lincoln - a president who felt rather differently on matters of personal freedom than George Bush. "Prohibition," declared Lincoln, "goes beyond the bounds of reason in that it attempts to control a man's appetite by legislation and makes a crime out of things that are not crimes. A prohibition law strikes a blow at the very principles upon which our government was founded."

I'm with Honest Abe. But it's tricky. Who would want to hear on take-off: "Hello folks, I'm your captain today and I'm already high"? On the other hand, the irresistible spread of the drug test reflects a breakdown of trust. It's corrosive, invasive, pervasive and downright horrible.

Pass through the airport scanner and you are, momentarily, a suspect bomber. Browse in a bookshop and the CCTV camera regards you as a suspect thief. Go home, and your parents treat you as a suspect junky. Presumption of innocence? Forget it: this is the post 9/11 world. Open your flies and whizz. In God we Trust, runs the Great American Slogan. All others will be tested.

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