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Drug Testing: the Wrong Results

Slowly She Dissolves, by Melinda Green Harvey

Slowly She Dissolves, by Melinda Green Harvey

When I was a law student, I took a class on environmental law. One of the subjects I was interested in was contamination by secondary exposure. Direct exposure is obvious and often quantifiable. Indirect or secondary exposure – in the form of things like acid rain or second-hand smoke – was more complex and harder to quantify and prove. I was also fascinated by the possibility of false positive and false negative results from the testing methods available at the time. These tests were being used to fight coal-fired power plants and to hold cigarette manufacturers liable for the lung cancer of non-smokers. They were also being used to ferret out pot smokers and recreational users of certain prescription medications.

It was 1988. The Reagans were in the White House. Nancy’s “Just Say No” campaign was wildly popular among people who had no clue about how teenagers test boundaries. That year saw a wave of employers demanding that their employees take drug tests either before beginning employment, after an accident, or randomly. Aside from the 4th Amendment issues (which only applied to the government employers), dissenters raised objections to false positive test results that could damage not only someone’s career but their reputations and future employability. Being a child of the 70’s and 80’s, I was at least passingly familiar with the concept of the “contact high.” Could a person’s off-duty social associations cause him to lose his job? I decided to investigate the matter.

I researched the science, not just the law. I learned that something as ordinary as a poppy seed bagel or over-the-counter antihistamines could skew test results. There was no way to differentiate between someone who had ingested the substance illicitly or simply gone to a concert and been assigned a seat near people who were smoking weed. The science could test for the presence of the chemicals, but could not say how they had gotten into the person’s body or whether the person was feeling the effects of the substance at the time of testing.

Five years later I had a very active family law practice. I handled quite a few employment law cases, too. Drug testing came up over and over again. Knowing what I did, I discouraged clients from attacking each other for drug use unless it was seriously interfering with parenting responsibilities – and not just because of the false positives and false negatives. Usually if one parent partakes, the other parent will have been exposed, if they didn’t themselves indulge. The employment cases were the worst, though.

All it took was an accident that was someone else’s fault to trigger a drug test under most employers’ policies. I remember a truck driver who hired me who said yes, for the first time in 20 years he had smoked a joint at his college reunion a few days before the accident. He wasn’t high when it happened, but lost a $70,000/year job when a woman driving another vehicle ran a stop sign. He swerved to miss her and ended up in a ditch. He was fired because of the drug test, not because of the accident.

I remember the 60+ year old woman who was told she had failed a pre-employment drug test. This woman had been out of work for more than a year because the plant where she had worked closed. She had had to give up her home of 40 years and move in with her daughter. She was looking forward to independence again. Our investigation revealed that the test samples had probably been switched accidently, either at the lab or by whoever had collected the samples. A long-haired hippie-type person had the job she had applied for, and in a fit of profiling she just knew he was actually the one with the drugs in his system. Her preacher, though, in whom she had confided the devastating test results, had condemned her and was counseling her to get help for her non-existent addiction. She was humiliated and literally sick over it.

By 2000, there were lots of products on the market specifically marketed to people who needed to beat a drug test. Substance abuse was an issue in at least half of the custody cases I tried, and maybe more. Every single client – and every single opposing party – knew about these products. They weren’t 100% reliable, but I didn’t have any clients who submitted to a drug test without using the products if there was time for them to do so. Those who I knew used drugs were made aware that in-court testing was a possibility. While I couldn’t tell them to destroy the evidence, I could tell them to be ready to be tested. With a few exceptions, they were all smart enough to take steps.

drug testing - hair follicle collectionThen there was the grandmother who was suing for custody of her badly neglected grandchildren. She didn’t use drugs. She was asking for custody because her daughter and son in law did, and because of their drug use they didn’t take care of their children adequately. She had asked for drug testing knowing that she would pass easily and that the parents would fail any drug test they were ordered to take. The judge ordered everyone to be tested. The grandmother had gone to a James Taylor concert at Alltell Arena and breathed in that second-hand marijuana smoke. Her grandchildren ended up in foster care.

Then came hair follicle testing. Follicle testing was more foolproof and harder to beat, the testing centers and manufacturers claimed. It wasn’t long before the shampoos and rinses were marketed in the same places as those flushing solutions. “You cannot beat a hair test,” one site still boasts. It’s wrong. Even if the test shows positive, it doesn’t explain how the substance got there.

It made me think of the rumor I had heard back in the 1980’s when cocaine use was rampant in the United States. It was said that traces of cocaine could be found on nearly every American $100 in circulation. Partiers would roll the bill into a straw and snort the powder through it. This level of contamination is still the case, and the bills don’t even have to be used directly with the cocaine. They can get contaminated inside currency-counting machines at the bank. Imagine handling one of those bank-contaminated bills that you just withdrew to pay your lawyer, them smoothing a stray strand of hair. Then imagine that you are sent directly for a drug test, and despite the fact that you have never in your life even seen cocaine, much less used it, your drug test comes back positive for the drug. It doesn’t have to be in your system to count. It just has to be in your hair. And once again, you are placed in the position of having to explain how it got there, and proving the negative of the drug use that you are now presumed to engage in.

With the announcement from the American Chemical Society last week that steps taken to remove secondary contamination from hair being drug tested actually washes cocaine into the hair shaft, the most reliable of these unreliable tests just became even less reliable.

Science gives us a lot, but it is not a panacea and never will be. It answers some questions, but answering those tends to lead to more that need to be asked. Whether in the courtroom or just in everyday life, we need to remember to ask those questions that logically come next. Science can then begin investigating them and working to find the answers.

Drug testing is too fallible to be reliable. A positive drug test tells us virtually nothing. It doesn’t prove frequent use or addiction. It doesn’t prove use at all – and it never has.

Reason in the Rock’s Indiegogo Fundraiser

For the second year running, I’m organizing a conference on science and secularism. My friend Sky came up with the idea after a group of us from central Arkansas attended Skepticon in the fall of 2011, and we’ve run with the project. Last year was the first ever Reason in the Rock. We expected maybe 75 people for a day of speakers. Instead, over 250 signed up!

We’ve learned from organizers of similar conferences, especially from Skepticon’s, that we can expect to double our attendance for the first few years as word spreads. And like Skepticon, we really want to keep Reason in the Rock free for anyone who can’t afford to attend otherwise.

diplodocus

*Image is considerably smaller than actual creature

This presents a bit of a problem, because renting a venue, hosting speakers from all over the country (not to mention just getting them to Little Rock), and promoting the conference takes money. We depend on donations to make Reason in the Rock a reality.

See the video, which was made mostly in my basement hallway, in front of the collection of books in the Star Wars Expanded Universe – proving my X-treme geekery – and with a diplodocus from the Carnegie Collection of dinosaur figurines serving as the horns of the devil in many segments.

This event is very important. It’s the only one of its kind this year in Arkansas. Conferences like this can change minds, open eyes, and expand horizons. Reason in the Rock did all that last year, and will do it again this year, if it can make its funding goals.

Not only did Reason in the Rock expand the number of people who knew about the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers – because we organized the conference – it got us important positive news coverage. So often when the Freethinkers get in the news, it’s because we’re objecting to violations of separation of church and state, which, in the minds of those who would have us live in a theocracy or think that injecting religion into politics isn’t harmful, makes us seem like Grinches. We aren’t – we’re a group of fun-loving, politically diverse, intellectually active, friendly, community-minded humanists, agnostics, atheists, ethicists, and other secularists.

In the deeply religious Bible Belt, someone who doesn’t ascribe to religion can feel very alone. The Arkansas Society of Freethinkers is working to build a community dedicated to good science education, rational inquiry, critical thinking, secularism, and fun. This conference is one of many ways we can get the word out that the isolated nonbelievers in Arkansas are definitely not alone.

We have a great lineup this year, and one that will appeal to anyone who loves science, reason, and independent thinking.

David Silverman, president of American Atheists, will be here. Dave’s fun to hang out with and fun to hear speak. And yes – those who come to Reason in the Rock will get to hang out with the speakers and talk with them one-on-one. Those who donate $500 to sponsor a speaker will even get to share a meal with one of the stars of the line-up!

Jerry DeWitt, who just published his memoir Hope After Faith about his transition from charismatic Pentecostal preacher to nonbeliever, will be returning. Fun fact: The first time Jerry ever spoke publicly about his atheism was in Little Rock, at a meeting of the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers. He’s a special guy, and we’re glad to be special to him, too! Jerry’s book will be available for sale, and he’ll happily autograph it for you.

Ben Bell and Kyle Sanders, who started Little Rock’s Skeptics in the Pub, will put on a special Skeptics presentation for us. Kyle put together the Indiegogo campaign for us, and he just generally rocks.

Ever seen Matt Dillahunty on the Atheist Experience? No one pwns theocrats and unthinking believers like he does. Oh, they try to argue with him. They lose. Decisively. Matt’s amazing, and if you’ve never seen him in action you should definitely check out the Atheist Experience’s YouTube Channel.

Bil Cash, the director of Arkansas’ EEOC office, will speak about religious discrimination in the workplace. Since he was one of my very best friends in law school a million years ago, I’m really excited about his participation.

The Southern Poverty Law Center is sending Lecia Brooks, the Director of Outreach, to talk about the state of intolerance in America. There’s some controversy here, because some have said that SPLC is promoting intolerance just by keeping and making public its dossiers on hate groups. Is it wrong to keep tabs on the haters and to describe them that way?

We’ll show an awesome documentary, No Dinosaurs in Heaven, and the filmmaker, Greta Schiller will take questions after it. Me, I’m hoping she can explain how none of the dinos managed to make it onto the ark, and how even the prehistoric swimming creatures drowned in the flood. (I’m kidding, guys. Relax.)

Darrel Ray will be here to talk about Sex and God. Rachel Johnson says she’ll be talking about sex, too, but from a biological perspective. She’s one of the co-hosts of the Pink Atheist Podcast along with LeeWood Thomas, who is one of our members, and Phil Ferguson, who also plans to be here.

No conference on secularism would be complete without the participation of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Dan Barker, co-president of FFRF, will be here. As much as FFRF gets slammed in the press by theocratic fundamentalists, you’d think he sports a tail and horns, but in actuality he’s one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet.

These aren’t the only great speakers in our lineup. There are more, and we want to make sure they all come and they all make a bog impression. Please help the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers make this year’s Reason in the Rock a reality.

We’re actually hoping to be over-funded, so we have a head start on next year’s conference. We have big dreams about who we want to invite next year. BIG dreams!

And Arkansas has uphill battles. We have hateful bigots in our state who advocate the murder of gay people, a former governor with  Faux News show who thinks his version of Christianity would make a great theocracy, and a largely uneducated state legislature who not only doesn’t have the first clue about how to pass laws that also pass constitutional muster but also want to impose their dubious morality on everyone in the state…. We need all the help we can get.

Please help.

Please donate!

The Most Awesome Man in the World

Who is the most awesome man in the world?

The Most Interesting Man in the World

I said “Awesome,” not “Interesting.” (source)

No, no, this is a guy who has it ALL.

Carlos Slim

I don’t mean the “Richest Guy in the World,” either. (source)

 

The man I’m talking about is a kick-ass guy who’s really got it going on.

Chuck Norris

The Boogeyman checks under the bed for Chuck Norris. (source)

But, no, he’s not the toughest man in the world.

 

Let me give you some hints.

He’s got a day job. He’s enormously intelligent. He spent time at Columbia University in New York. He has a great sense of humor. He gets hate mail along with fan mail. He weighs in on matters pertaining to NASA missions. He’s participated in Reddit’s AMA (Ask Me Anything).  He’s on television a lot, even though he’s not an actor. He can hold his own with the likes of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. And, oh yeah, he’s black.

 

Barack Obama

Good guess, but not the guy I’m talking about. (source)

There’s a guy who’s more awesome than Barack Obama, something many people have no trouble agreeing with, although, of course,  47% of us are all about Obama. Really.

There’s just one problem: the Most Awesome Man in the World demoted Pluto, and he steadfastly refuses to apologize for it.

Pluto, a planet with five moons

Pluto has five – count ’em: FIVE – moons. Earth is so wimpy it only has one moon. Do non-planets have moons? I think NOT. (source)

 

But does that make him less than the Most Awesome Man in the World?

In spite of his slander against Pluto, I say no. Neil deGrasse Tyson IS the Most Awesome Man in the World.

 

Neil deGrasse Tyson

Dr. Tyson poses with a big gun. Sexy! (source)

 

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium, is an engaging, interesting speaker and science educator. He bases his views on evidence and proofs. He was already so cool by the age of 15 that he was presenting astronomy research to professionals. Carl Freaking Sagan himself tried – unsuccessfully – to recruit the college-bound Neil Tyson to his astronomy department at Cornell. (Tyson went to Harvard instead, then graduate school in Texas and at Columbia.) He has eloquently explained the God of the Gaps. He has schooled a prosecutor who wanted him, as a juror, to rely on eyewitness testimony, and inquired of a judge why the defendant was accused of possessing 1,700 milligrams of cocaine, rather than 1.7 grams – less than the weight of a dime. His stories of his experience with jury duty underscore something that I’ve often said is wrong with the legal system – it’s set up to discourage critical thinking.

He was asked what he believed to be the most astounding fact about the universe. He responded eloquently:

The most astounding fact is the knowledge that the atoms that comprise life on earth, the atoms that make up the human body, are traceable to the crucibles that cooked light elements into heavy elements in their core under extreme temperatures and pressures. These stars, the high-mass ones among them, went unstable in their later years. They collapsed and then exploded, scattering their enriched guts across the galaxy – guts made of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and all the fundamental ingredients of life itself. These ingredients become part of gas clouds that condense, collapse, form the next generation of solar systems, stars with orbiting planets, and those planets now have the ingredients for life itself. So that when I look up at the night sky, and I know that, yes, we are part of this universe, we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts, is that the universe is in us.

When I reflect on that fact, I look up – many people feel small, because they’re small and the universe is big – but I feel big, because my atoms came from those stars. There’s a level of connectivity. That’s really what you want in life. You want to feel connected, you want to feel relevant, you want to feel like you’re a participant in the goings-on and activities around you. That’s precisely what we are, just by being alive.

I follow Dr. Tyson on Twitter. Twitter is an insipid thing, parsing the world into 144 characters or less. I only use my account to promote this blog, but I have this Twitter feed on my browser’s homepage that shows me interesting things that other people have to say. It’s one way of keeping up with who just posted what where. I see in my Twitter feed when Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist, posts news about religion in the public world, when Dante Shepherd posts new webcomics on his blackboard, when Adam Savage of Mythbusters fame finds a cool article. I follow political commentary on Twitter: The Tea Party Cat makes wonderfully pithy comments. Indecision is Comedy Central’s hub for all things political, and – oh! – Wonkette.  The snarky Wonkette site may be my favorite political news anywhere.

I follow the thoughts of people, too. Among my favorites are Andy Borowitz and Ricky Gervais. Those guys are funny. Some people – and I am not among them – can really make those 144 characters work hard.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is one such tweeter. His insights are worth repeating. And despite his obvious astrophysical prowess, his tweets don’t focus on the universe so much as they focus on, well, the world. For example:

Neil deGrasse Tyson on Bulletproof Vests

 and

Neil deGrasse Tyson on the TSA

and

Neil deGrasse Tyson on Success and Encouragement

Those Tweets were collected on a single site, which I was glad to see, because I know I’m not the only one who thinks just about everything Neil deGrasse Tyson says is worth hearing. I admire the heck out of the man. His values (“If aliens did visit us, I’d be embarrassed to tell them we still dig fossil fuels from the ground as a source of energy”), his wisdom (“Just to settle it once and for all: Which came first the Chicken or the Egg? The Egg — laid by a bird that was not a Chicken”), his pride in his offspring (“More evidence my 14yr old daughter is a Geek: after prompting me to ask if she knew any jokes about sodium, she replied, ‘Na'”), his knowledge (“According to the song, Rudolph’s nose is shiny, which means it reflects rather than emits light. Useless for navigating fog”), and his insights (“I’ve come to conclude that Fettucini Alfredo is just Mac-and-Cheese for food snobs”) entertain, illuminate, and educate.

What’s not to like about him?  Other than the Pluto thing, I mean. Let’s disregard that for the moment.

Set aside some time and listen to his “Brain Droppings” keynote speech from TAM 6. I’ve listened to it more than once, and I don’t get tired of it. He proves, yet again, that he is the sexiest astrophysicist alive.

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