COLUMN: Think drug-testing policy through

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By JIM ALEXANDER, Guest Columnist

I am writing in response to the article (“School officials eye drug-testing program,” Dec. 20 issue) announcing that the school board may be considering a program to conduct drug testing on students who wish to drive to school or participate in extracurricular activities.

The opinions expressed here are my own, and not necessarily those of Abbott Laboratories, or any other company, group or individual.

Let me first say that, in a sense, I have no “skin in the game.” I am long out of school, as is my son. I have no interest in being a teacher, nor in running for the school board. My purpose in writing is to share a different perspective, based on my work experience. I do not use illegal drugs, never have, never will. I would never encourage anyone else to do so.

In all wars, there are innocent victims. This is true of the war on drugs as well.

We have all heard about crimes committed by addicts to get money for drugs, or of law enforcement officers or suspects being injured or killed in efforts to enforce the law.

In order to minimize the potential for innocent victims in any war, a good leader will pick his battles, and use strategy designed to accomplish the objective, while leaving unharmed the innocents. It could be argued that testing without probable cause, or “assuming guilt until innocence is proven,” does not represent the best strategy for protecting the innocents.

The foregoing not withstanding, the primary purpose of this letter is to look at the issue from a different perspective. I used to make my living in part by repairing the sort of equipment often used to test for drugs of abuse. From that perspective, I offer the following:

The technology currently used for testing for drugs of abuse is the best that it has ever been. Even so, it is a long way from perfect. There are many sources of possible error.

These can include such basics as misidentifying samples (large reference labs receive thousands of samples per day, some from people with the same name, occasionally with the same or similar birthday). Another source of error is interfering substances – chemicals that can “look like” a substance of interest, but in fact are something very different.

A third source of possible error is cross contamination – when a strongly positive sample goes through the analyzer just before yours and some of their sample is retained in the instrument and causes you to be positive.

Testing for drugs of abuse can be highly profitable, and manufacturers and labs offering such services will explain that they consider the results to be accurate. At the same time, manufacturers are required to provide package inserts, which list not only how to do the test but also some of the possible ways the test can be wrong.

All such package inserts that I am aware of also include a disclaimer, noting that the test should not be used for legal purposes without further confirmation. These package insert are publicly available on the Internet. I would strongly urge those interested to review the documents, including the lengthy lists of known interferences.

If there are those who would like to do so, but have trouble locating the documentation on the Web, I would be happy to help.

In my view, testing for drugs of abuse should be limited to those who have provided some basis for believing that they may have a problem in that area. If the decision is made to move forward with random testing, I would submit the following recommendations:

1. Testing should begin with the school board, administrators and teachers. By going through the experience, these officials would be in the best position to decide whether to move forward with the program. They should be retested at whatever frequency the students are tested. If it is good enough for the students, it should be good enough for those watching over them. Results for elected officials should be made public.

2. All testing should be done at a National Institute on Drug Abuse-certified facility. Such facilities adhere to the highest standards of protocol, and usually charge significantly more.

3. Initially positive samples should be retested by a different lab using a different methodology.

4. Positive samples should be reviewed by a certified Medical Review Officer before being acted upon.

A society free of illegal drugs is a very worthy goal, but so is adherence to traditionally American values such as requiring probable ca use for a search (testing) and the presumption of innocence.

Jim Alexander is a retired Abbott Labs field service representative from Tell City.