Courts use drug testing methods such as analysis of urine, hair, saliva and sweat, but they are limited by cost, danger of infection and the invasiveness of certain procedures. Blood testing is not often used in drug courts because of its invasiveness and potential for infection, despite that it would indicate any level of impairment. The cutoff level is another factor of drug testing; it refers to the highest level of drug presence that qualifies for a negative result.
Urine testing has high accuracy and availability, quick turnaround time, low cost, high drug concentrations, established methodologies, quality control and certification. However, urine testing lacks privacy, it does not provide blood level data, it has a detection time of only hours to days, and samples can easily be tainted. Urine testing is the most common method used by courts. Testing is classified by automated or manual.
Hair testing is noninvasive, it indicates long-term drug usage and it is difficult to alter. Hair can be collected from any area of the body. Disadvantages include external contamination and potential bias, because dark hair absorbs drugs more easily than light hair does. Cutoff values are difficult to determine with hair tests. Levels of intoxication are not indicated by hair. Positive tests are confirmed using gas chromatography/mass spectrometry.
Saliva and Sweat
Saliva testing is noninvasive, and it indicates levels of impairment as well as blood level estimates. Often the mouth is simply swabbed. Disadvantages include cost, smoke contamination, and pH fluctuations that might change test results. Sweat testing covers a longer detection time frame, weeks to months, than urine testing does. Pads placed on the body for days absorb sweat, and they are difficult to alter because they are stuck to the body.
Inhalants and tobacco are two special substances screened for by courts. Inhalant testing involves a chromatographic testing process performed by a forensic expert. Urine testing, or preferably blood testing, is used. Gases emitted by the blood or urine determine detection.
Inhalants are difficult to detect because usually, only small amounts are present in a sample. In several states, juvenile courts test for tobacco in underage offenders. Testing products are widely available and focus on identifying nicotine.
- U.S. Department of Justice: Drug Testing in a Drug Court Environment: Common Issues To Address
- "Drug Abuse Handbook"; Marilyn A. Huestis, et al.; CRC Press; 1997
- Jerome J. Robinson, Director Pretrial Services Agency of the District of Columbia
- Photo Credit Jupiterimages/Comstock/Getty Images
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