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A Short History of Drug Testing In America

Drug testing is the backbone of the drug court system in the United States.

Typically, drug courts will be required to conduct frequent and random drug tests of participants and will need those test results immediately and, most importantly, those results have to be accurate.

The Beginnings of Drug Testing

The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) began large-scale drug testing during the late 1960s to bust military personnel deployed in Vietnam for marijuana and heroin use. The DOD’s efforts to catch drug abusers in its Asian operation led directly to developments in urine drug testing technology, including establishing cutoff levels for drug traces in the body. Any traces of drugs found to be above these established levels would be seen as a positive reading while anything below them would not be detected and would therefore render the test as negative.

In the following years, workplace drug testing became more and more commonplace, especially after President Ronald Reagan’s 1986 directive on drug abuse and drug-free workplaces.

In the early 1980s, the criminal justice system, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and many other Federal, State and local agencies started incorporating drug testing into their investigations and operations.

Drug Testing In The Courts

Unlike military drug testing, drug testing in the criminal justice system has not seen the establishment of consistent cutoff levels that are uniformly enforced. This is because the range of applications of drug testing programs in the criminal justice environment have required the development of policies and protocols exclusive to the criminal justice system.

While drug testing in the military or workplace has basically one goal, to rid the organization of drug abusers, drug testing within the criminal justice system is done for a variety of reasons: prosecution, supervision of a defendant’s compliance with a pretrial release or probation order or monitoring a participant’s treatment progress and compliance with drug court program conditions.

For drug courts, drug testing is done mostly to monitor a defendant’s treatment progress to determine if that person has been doing drugs, and if so what type and how much. The test results can be used for ordering further treatment service or even reducing treatment service requirements if the results show that the person is, in fact, reducing their drug intake (even if they haven’t quit completely).

Results and The Factors That Determine Them

Despite the words “positive” and “negative” being used in a very black-and-white manner, the drug tests are anything but black-and-white.

For the purposes of a drug court program, these tests determine the presence or absence of drug metabolites in a given sample either above or below established cutoff limits.

How the laboratory interprets and the court responds to these results depends on:

• the biological process that affects the length of time different drugs stay in the human body;

• interactions of one drug with another;

• distribution and elimination rates of the drugs in question;

• the participant’s drug history and other physical characteristics;

• how effectively the tests can identify potential cheating (e.g., flushing or water loading) that may affect the test results;

• the effect of other variables, such as the individual’s health, physical condition, and duration of drug use, on the test analysis.

Source; U.S. Department of Justice; Drug Testing in a Drug Court Environment: Common Issues to Address


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