Drug tests can be weaponized

This pertains to Kuensel news article, TCB Officials Undergo Drug Test. While I commend the move by the Tourism Council to create a drug-free sector, and have absolutely no doubt on its noble intent (after all, who would like to be guided around the country or be driven by a drug addict), I would invite some caution in jumping into this practice as mandatory requirements at workplace and professions.

Although, I am a no expert on this issue, I was associated with Chithuen Phenday during its inception period and have engaged in deep conversations with hundreds of clients to get some insights into the use and abuse of illicit substances. During that same period, I was also involved in cases where I had to help fight certain stereotyping, legal abuses and common misconceptions. To put it simply, drug addiction, testing or recovery are not a straight-forward or black and white matter. It is very complicated, multidimensional and intricate. I would like to share a few examples here.

First of all, drug tests carried out at workplace or on-site such as sporting facilities and events, are not conclusive. It is only indicative. In simple words, drug tests can never be 100% correct in first instance. In general, the results can be interpreted in two ways:

  1. False positive. False positive means that you have not taken any illicit substance but you are tested positive (as having taken drugs) nevertheless. Even with the best and latest drug-test kits, getting a false positive is a real possibility.  False positive may appear in cases as simple as after consumption of natural substances and common over-the-counter medications – such as food with yeast (bread or yogurt), cold medications, antibiotics and antihistamine (allergy medicines) and even common painkiller such as ibuprofen or taking prescribed antiretroviral drugs. Passive inhaling like being around with friends who smoke marijuana can also produce false positive. False positive, however, means you have failed the drug test. And in a small and gossip-prone society like ours, such a result for anyone, although just indicative, would have a devastating effect on the career, morale, and dignity of a person and would leave an indelible stigma to his or her family and relatives. Worse still, it can be weaponized by someone who may or may not like that person for some reason. For example, bosses and heads at workplace may use them to suppress or eliminate young, upcoming and brighter colleagues. Rival companies and tour guides may use against each other. The possibilities of misuse of false positive results are simply endless.
  2. False negative – False negative is when one actually consumes illicit substances but is smart enough, or accidentally, comes out as ‘clean’. This could occur when the person who is being tested goes on to manipulate the sample (urine) through easily available adulterants and techniques (there are many available online); or when the labs pre-establishes a high drug cut-off levels – and so while the sample contain illicit substances or their metabolites, the concentration levels do not cross the very high cut-off set by the lab or the agency. False negative can also happen when the labs and test kits are not current with the latest drugs in the market. Mind you, drug dealers and serious users are three steps ahead of the Law. Needless to add, that the way our body absorbs, or responds, to alcohol and drugs vary from person to person. Two people consuming the same thing and same amount will produce two different results. Ask any medical doctor.

While the mandatory drug-testing policy, which was also toyed by the Royal Civil Service Commission for all civil servants, may look good on the outside, such a move could open a myriad of unwanted and unintended consequences from the inside. It is an explosive issue – to be dealt with with a great caution. I will mention just two additional unintended outcomes and consequences:

  1. Displacement effect – whereby users will shift from use of easily (and often less harmful drugs) to other drugs that are more difficult to detect – and which are more harmful. Drug and alcohol abuses are not just behavioral issues. It is physiological. The body demands it. It is a disease to be treated like any other diseases. 
  2. Defensive mechanism and creativity – whereby users will explore creative ways to avoid detection – instead of reducing the use. This can be achieved by medications that are legal and which will produce false positive – or use some masking agents, which the drug dealers will discover sooner or later. For example, from my personal experience, lots of my friends, who drank some whisky before going home from work would chew tea leaves that masked the smell of alcohol. That way their wives thought they were always clean.

In conclusion, I am neither here to condone drug abuse nor to criticise the noble initiatives to control drug abuse in the country. What I am saying is, I hope, among others, the above issues and potential ramifications are discussed thoroughly, and experts advices are sought.

For, such as policy could sway either way. Just sharing my experience


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