Hair Testing by Schools Intensifies Drug Debate

Affiliate: ACLU of Louisiana
June 14, 1999 12:00 am

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NEW ORLEANS, LA — Despite the fact that the federal government remains unconvinced of the accuracy of hair testing for drugs, the practice is now being adopted by some private schools, The New York Times reported today.

In the latest chapter in the continuing debate over the best way to keep adolescents from experimenting with drugs, Roman Catholic De la Salle High School began testing the hair of its 870 students in March 1998, in a pilot program sponsored by Psychemedics Corp., the leading hair-testing company. Five other Catholic schools in the New Orleans region have followed suit, the Times said.

Citing the federal government’s skepticism about hair testing as well as constitutional concerns, the American Civil Liberties Union said it opposes all random testing, whether or not someone is suspected of drug use.

“We’re always concerned about testing people who haven’t done anything wrong,” Lewis Maltby, Executive Director of the ACLU’s Workplace Rights Project told the Times. Hair testing, Maltby said, “is growing fast and that’s what alarms us. The problem is easy to state: It doesn’t work. It’s not reliable.”

Indeed, Maltby noted, hair testing has been labeled unreliable by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the Society of Forensic Toxicologists and the Food and Drug Administration. All three have stated that the test should not used as a basis for employment decisions and the FDA has even gone so far as to suggest that marketing the test may be illegal.

According to the Times, private schools can make drug tests a condition of enrollment without inviting lawsuits. But now two public high school principals in New Orleans want to test their students, too, raising the prospect of a legal battle with national ramifications.

The ACLU said it would challenge any plan to start hair testing for drugs in New Orleans public schools as a violation of protections against unreasonable search and seizure and invasion of privacy in both the state and federal constitutions, according to Joe Cook, Executive Director of the ACLU of Louisiana.

Raymond Kubacki Jr., president of Psychemedics, which is based in Cambridge, Mass., told the Times that 80 schools, mostly private, in 26 states were using Psychemedics to test their students for drugs.

Hair testing is based on the premise that drugs ingested in the body travel through the bloodstream and are deposited in hair follicles roughly in proportion to the amount taken. Traces remain in the hair, disclosing how long the drugs have been used.

Since hair grows at the rate of a half-inch a month, the test uses the inch and a half closest to the scalp to detect drug use for the last 90 days. According to the Times, a hair sample the diameter of a shoelace tip is clipped and sent to a laboratory, which liquefies the follicles to measure the presence of five drugs: marijuana, heroin, cocaine, amphetamine and phencyclidine, or PCP.

But government researchers have raised questions about whether drug molecules bind more to coarser black hair than to finer blond or brownish hair, creating racial or gender disparities, and whether passive exposure to marijuana or other smoked drugs could produce a false positive, said the Times.

In June 1998, the ACLU of Illinois warned the Chicago Police Department, police unions and the City Council that hair tests of Chicago cops were unfair and racially discriminatory.

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