New drug test, same old problems

Sep 28 2017

New drug test, same old problems

Researchers say they have a new way to test if a person has been using cocaine. But what may be a step forward for science could also be a cause for concern.

The study, published in the journal Clinical Chemistry, looked at using paper spray mass spectrometry to detect cocaine in a person’s body using only a fingerprint. The test involves a person placing their finger on a piece of paper, treating that paper with chemicals, and then sending a small amount of electricity through the paper. The testing equipment then uses the drug’s molecular weight and known biomarkers to determine if cocaine is present in the body.

Researchers said the use of paper spray mass spectrometry has already shown positive results in detecting drugs in blood, and they wanted to expand on the technique.

“As an alternative to blood, fingerprints have been shown to provide a noninvasive and traceable sampling matrix. Our goal was to validate the use of fingerprint samples to detect cocaine use,” the authors wrote.

According to the researchers, the experiment was largely a success. They say “analysis of 239 fingerprint samples yielded a 99% true-positive rate” and researchers showed the test could be done in a mere four minutes as opposed to other methods which can take substantially longer.

But for all of the so-called benefits of the test (noninvasive, fast, accurate, etc.), there is still a major drawback: it’s a drug test.

This is not to say that all drug tests are bad, but rather to point out that all drug tests are flawed. And yet when it comes to situations that can determine the rest of a person’s life (in the legal system, for example), they are given extreme power and considered nearly infallible.

A litany of research has concluded that drug tests, particularly field tests used most often by law enforcement, are not 100 percent accurate, and can have false-positive rates as high as 10 percent. This new test for example, with it’s “99% true-positive rate,” also boasts a “2.5% false positive rate.” Determining if someone has been using drugs may be necessary, but tests can be fooled by combinations of medications, foods, or they can simply be defective tests. Basing life-changing decisions on faulty equipment is not only reckless, it’s amoral.

There’s also the question of their overall usefulness. Because people process drugs through their bodies at different rates, it’s unclear if this new test could determine exactly when a person used the drug, and whether they were still under its influence at the time of testing. For cases like possible DUI arrests, it’s not enough to simply know the drug is present, but rather the effect it had at the time of the test. Law enforcement can use drug testing in combination with field sobriety tests, but holding up drug tests as the gospel and final word on inebriation is simply inaccurate.

This new test could have many benefits for people across industries, particularly in overdose situations where medical personnel need to rapidly determine which substances are in a person’s body. But when it comes to drug testing in general, we must always recognize the limitations inherent in the tests and base our judgements on our sum total of knowledge, not on potentially inaccurate equipment.