Questions about the reliability of hair follicle tests for determining alcohol and drug use are causing the Canadian province of Ontario to reconsider whether or not these should be used in cases dealing with at-risk children and mothers suspected of using illicit drugs or excessive alcohol. Interestingly, one of the primary critics of the tests is the manager of the laboratory that conducts the tests for a prominent Ontario hospital.

The question now before decision-makers is whether to allow data from a number of studies to influence whether or not they continue using the hair follicle procedure. In principle, testing hair follicles for the presence of drug and alcohol compounds is a more reliable method because hair grows at such a slow rate. The original developers of the test claimed that reliable results could be achieved as far as 30 to 90 days out. However, there is a big problem with the testing method that researchers are now discovering with greater frequency: false positives.

Ontario officials are especially concerned because women are at a higher risk for returning false positives for alcohol. Why? Because of their tendency to use alcohol-based hair care products. Even trace amounts of alcohol in a shampoo or conditioner could show up in hair samples long after such products were used. When it comes to the question of taking kids away from their mothers because of drug or alcohol abuse, tests that are potentially unreliable raise too many legal questions.

In the UK, child welfare officials in London stopped using hair testing for alcohol abuse in 2010 after a High Court determined that evidence in the case was unreliable. That case dragged on for eight months – to the detriment of the children involved. In addition, in the US, a 2008 decision by the Department of Health and Human Services suggested that more rigorous analysis was necessary before hair test results could be used as reliable evidence in court.

Back in Ontario, a court overturned a Toronto mother’s drug convictions after questions were raised about the scientific reliability of hair testing. That happened this past October. Since then, the calls to cease using the tests have been mounting.

A Risky Proposition

There is little argument that any test that could possibly lead to the separation of children from their mothers is a risky proposition at best. Yet sometimes alcohol and drug testing is necessary to ensure the safety and well-being of children. The question is one of where do we go from here?

Any nation that respects the rule of law has to look at the concept of hair testing in an objective manner. If scientific analysis reveals a high incidence of false positives among women, based on the hair care products they use, it seems reasonable that the test should be abandoned until it can be adjusted to account for such anomalies. Otherwise, the rule of law is not being applied uniformly.

Another possibility is one of abandoning the hair test altogether in favour of something that is statistically more reliable. In the end, it is less about the test and more about helping addicted mothers and their children.

As an alcohol user yourself, are you concerned about how much you drink? On the other hand, perhaps you are using cannabis or some other kind of drug. We want to help in either case. Addiction Helper is an independent organisation offering free advice, referrals, and evaluations. You can access our services by calling our 24-hour addiction recovery helpline. We will provide you with information about addiction politics and available options.

Sources:

  1. The Star– http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2014/11/18/reliability_of_hair_drug_tests_up_for_debate.html
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