Facts about Drug Testing  

Drug tests are analyses of biological specimens that can determine the presence of specific types of drugs or the metabolites of drugs in a person’s system. These metabolites are compounds that result due to the process of breaking down chemicals in the body. Most often, the biological specimens used for drug tests are urine, breath, blood, saliva, or hair.

Drug tests are most often necessary for legal purposes (e.g., to test for driving under the influence of alcohol or other drugs or to test for their presence as part of legal probation), conditions of employment where drug use is either illegal or dangerous, and for athletes who may use performance-enhancing drugs.

Effectiveness of Drug Tests

The ability of a drug test to detect a specific drug is dependent on several different factors:

  • The drug itself (e.g., drug class, particular type, etc.)
  • How much of the drug a person has used
  • How often the person has used the drug
  • The type of drug test being used
  • Individual factors, such as the person’s age, metabolism, overall health, weight, and so forth

In addition, tests that look for the specific presence of the drug may have shorter windows of detection; therefore, it may be easier to “beat” the drug test after a certain amount of time if the test is not looking to detect specific drug metabolites. Drug metabolites often can be detected the system longer than the actual chemical substance itself. The general maximum detection times for several different drugs of abuse are presented below:

  • Alcohol
    • Urine sample: about 72-80 hours
    • Hair sample: about 2 days
    • Blood or saliva samples: 12-24 hours
  • Cannabis (this is quite variable depending on the amount and frequency of use)
    • Urine sample: as long as 30 days
    • Hair samples: about 90 days
    • Blood or saliva samples: 2-24 hours
  • Heroin
    • Urine sample: 2-4 days
    • Hair samples: about 90 days
    • Blood or saliva samples: 1-3 days
  • Cocaine
    • Urine sample: up to 10 days in heavy users, but may only be detectable for a few hours in non-heavy users
    • Hair samples: about 90 days
    • Blood or saliva samples: 2-10 days
  • Most benzodiazepines (Xanax, Valium, Ativan, etc)
    • Urine sample: for normal therapeutic use, about one week; however, in serious cases of abuse, they may be detectable for six weeks or more
    • Hair samples: about 90 days
    • Blood or saliva samples: 48 hours
  • Crystal meth (methamphetamine)
    • Urine sample: 3-5 days
    • Hair samples: about 90 days
    • Blood or saliva samples: 1-3 days
  • Ecstasy
    • Urine sample: 4 days
    • Hair samples: about 90 days
    • Blood or saliva samples: 4 days

Again, all of these detection times are variable. It is not assured that someone will beat the drug test by waiting out the maximum length of time depicted above. In some cases, the maximum detection period for a drug will be longer, and in other cases, it will be shorter.

In terms of their reliability, most drug tests are generally considered to be effective measures of the presence of a drug in a person’s system; however, it is important to understand that no test is perfect. There are a number of different conditions that can result in someone who has not taken a specific drug to test positive for that drug (a false positive test) and for someone who had actually taken a drug to test negative for that drug (a false-negative test). However, these tests are generally effective enough that they are trusted by the legal system, employers, and other entities that use them.

An individual who attempts to beat a positive drug test by claiming that they produced a false positive test will most likely not be successful unless concrete evidence can be presented.

Most individuals with substance use disorders deny their issues. When there is a conflict regarding the claims of the individual and evidence produced from a drug test, most often the authorities defer to the test results.

Trying to Beat a Urinalysis Test

patient being comforted by doctor before getting a urinalysis test for treatmentPerhaps the most commonly used form of drug test is a urinalysis test given by the court system, potential employers, and others who are interested in determining if an individual has used specific types of drugs. If individuals have prior knowledge of when they will be tested, they can simply stop using drugs for a period of time in order for the drugs to clear their systems and pass the drug test.

Individuals who are subject to random urinalysis tests are unable to schedule their drug use in order to provide them a clear window of time to allow the drug to be eliminated from their systems. Many times, these individuals attempt to beat urinalysis drug tests by diluting their systems with water, tea, or some herbal concoction. Depending on the metabolites being tested in the urinalysis, this may or may not be effective. In addition, most urine tests also test for signs that the urine is been deluded, by testing creatinine levels, pH levels, and specific gravity.

These types of tactics are obviously going to be far less effective for hair samples and blood samples. The best way to beat a drug test and the only way to be sure that one will not test positive on a drug test is simply to avoid taking specific drugs in the first place. There is no guaranteed method that will allow people to beat a drug test if they take drugs.

Breathalyzer Test for Alcohol

A common method to test for alcohol in a person’s system is the breathalyzer test. A breathalyzer measures the blood alcohol content (BAC) of a person, a measure of alcohol in the person’s bloodstream. Typically, an individual will metabolize alcohol at an hourly rate of approximately 0.015 of the person’s BAC. Everything else being equal, if an average person has a BAC of 0.10, it would take about 6 hours and 40 minutes for there to be no detectable level of alcohol in the person’s system (using a breathalyzer). However, as with any other drug, different people metabolize alcohol at different rates, so this is just a general estimate.

Many individuals are under the mistaken belief that they can beat breathalyzer tests by chewing gum, eating certain foods, drinking coffee, etc. The only way for a person’s BAC to decrease is for the person to metabolize the alcohol in their system at the general rate mentioned above.

Having sufficient time is the only real method that can effectively beat a breathalyzer test.

Drug Tests Used in the Treatment of Substance Abuse

doctor talking to patient about substance abuse and drug tests used in treatmentDrug testing is typically not a part of addiction treatment programs or drug abuse treatment programs unless the treatment is undertaken as a condition of employment or monitored by the legal system. Perhaps this is due to a number of factors, such as insurance issues, the reluctance of many individuals to engage in drug testing unless it is somehow mandatory, and the need for trust and confidentiality between a therapist and a client. In addition, those in inpatient addiction treatment programs simply don’t have access to drugs of abuse, so drug testing is not necessary. In some instances, those participating in outpatient care may take periodic drug tests to ensure treatment plan compliance.

Nonetheless, there is evidence that drug testing can be used to assist with treatment effectiveness for individuals who abuse drugs or who are addicted to drugs. For instance, drug testing is a common condition of parole or probation in the criminal justice system. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, treatment for drug abuse in parolees can be effective even if the treatment is undertaken involuntarily. In addition, other studies, such as a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, indicate that drug testing can be an effective component of a program designed to treat or reduce opioid abuse in people who use these drug for pain control. Thus, there appears to be a place for drug testing in treatment.

Even though the threat of being tested for specific drugs may help to prevent a person from relapsing, once the individual is no longer being tested for drugs, this threat is obviously not effective. A better long-term solution to avoiding relapse is to develop personal motivation to remain drug-free and to develop coping skills to deal with conditions that may trigger a relapse in an individual in recovery.

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