Category Archives: Drug testing

Olympic tokers get a break

The Canadian Globe and Mail reports today that cannabis cut-off levels have been raised at the Winter Olympics:

“…in a nod to the growing relaxed attitude toward the drug around the world, the cut-off level for a positive test has been increased for the Sochi Games, allowing for some recreational use prior to the Olympics.

The new threshold for the active ingredient in marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, has been increased from 15 nanograms per millilitre of urine to 150ng/mls. Officials say that means an athlete who smoked some weed before the Olympics, or inhaled second-hand smoke, wouldn’t likely test positive in Sochi. Someone who failed the new test would have to be “a pretty dedicated cannabis consumer,” WADA officials have said…”

And it’s fitting that it is a Canadian newspaper that brings us this story. This blogger remembers 12 years ago when challenged as a sample collector by the subject over passive smoking of marijuana causing a false positive.

His evidence was that a snowboarder was stripped of his gold medal but then had it re-instated when he challenged the result on the basis that he hung around with other boarders and that the community smoked a lot of dope.

Our client was witnessing this discussion, so when I returned to the office I checked it out. It turned out that there was a snow boarder, Ross Rebagliati, whose gold medal was re-instated after a failed drugs test…not, though, on the grounds of passive smoking, but mainly because THC wasn’t listed as a banned substance then – til snowboarding came in, the banned list focused on performance enhancing steroids! It has since been placed on WADA (the world anti-doping agency) list of banned substances.

That year, 1998, was the first time boarding was in the winter Olympics. I’ve just checked Mr Rebagliati’s Wiki page and the story doesn’t quite end there. In January 2013, he started a company called Ross’ Gold – a Canadian medical marijuana company. Fact can be way better than fiction.

Driving under the influence: is drug driving a serious issue in the UK?

How does drink and drug driving compare in the UK?

The risks of driving under the influence of alcohol have been well known, researched and promoted heavily for some decades now. Ever since the introduction of breathalysers, UK’s traffic police have had a simple piece of equipment that can determine if a driver has been drinking and whether they have exceeded the alcohol limit set down in law. That ability to test by the roadside has also helped raise the profile of the risks of drink driving in terms of the health and safety of the driver, passengers or pedestrians  and that facility also acts as a deterrent to drivers. There are few people in the country who could genuinely claim they are unaware of the risks of drinking alcohol with driving a vehicle.

But what about driving under the influence of drugs? The government runs campaigns against drug driving – some lamer than others (such as the dreadful ‘alien eyes’ poster campaign a few summers ago) – but essentially they have had very little impact.

Part of the problem is that the UK does not know the extent of drug driving in the country. The traffic police do not have the use of a simple device to test a driver to see if they have one of the common drugs of abuse in their system. The devices exist, and are used by police forces in other countries to great effect, but here in the UK, their introduction has been delayed for over a decade now.

Instead police have to use a ‘Field Impairment Test’ assessment – often referred to slightly tautologically as a FIT test. This is a roadside procedure based on a sobriety test with some additional elements, such as a card with holes in it of various sizes for the police to measure the driver’s pupil dilation. There’s a Romberg test (assessing the driver’s balance and ability to judge time), a walk and turn test, a one leg balancing test and a finger to nose test. Police officers have to undergo special training to be able to run and interpret the results of these exercises and as a result very few police officers have the qualification to execute the FIT. Also, even if an officer has that qualification, the 20 minutes or so required to complete the FIT along a roadside is anecdotally (from police) a deterrent to using it.

The result of this difficulty around FITs can be seen by the stark differences in the number of breathalyser tests for alcohol in comparison to the drug assessments: in December 2013, during their ‘Christmas campaign’, police forces in England and Wales carried out over 190,000 breathalyser tests. In the same month, they performed 513 FITs, an astonishing 370 times less drug driving tests than for drink driving.  

Equally striking – and perhaps of greater concern – was the difference between the positivity rate (the percentage of tests that drivers failed in either category for drugs or alcohol).  3.43% drivers failed the breathalyser tests, but 27.88% drivers failed the FIT drug assessment.

Now these figures are very likely to be skewed but other factors – firstly the size of the populations themselves (190,000 versus 513) means that the small drug driving figure is far more susceptible to statistical bias. Secondly, because breathalysers are so easy to use, police may use them during a Christmas campaign almost as a matter of course when they stop a driver. A FIT assessment though, because it is cumbersome to employ and it requires a trained officer, may (perhaps) only be used where there is already a suspicion the driver may be driving under the influence of drugs. Their pupils are dilated; they’re gabbling perhaps a bit too much. So the chances of a ‘positive’ may be higher.

However, we don’t know. There is simply not enough measurement of drug driving in the UK. You have to go back over a decade to find research that is still regarded as one of the best indicators of how serious the issue might be: then, 18% drivers in fatal accidents had illicit drugs in their system. There are 30 million drivers in the UK today. You do the math. It would be a brave commentator to suggest the UK’s drug driving will have dropped significantly since then.

The low-down on legal highs

 Following yesterday’s news that deaths related to the taking of legal highs in the UK had risen from 10 in 2009 to 68 in 2012, we publish this article by Matt Taylor, Managing Director of ScreenSafe, written last month for an occupational health clinic  

Legal Highs (Novel psychoactive substances) are often misrepresented as ‘safe’ for recreational use but can prove as harmful as controlled drugs

Novel (or new) psychoactive substances (NPS) are an ever-increasing group of synthetic, semi-synthetic or natural compounds, often advertised and sold as ‘legal’ alternatives to illicit drugs. Often misrepresented as ‘safe’ for recreational use, they can, however, prove as harmful as controlled drugs. Over the last decade, three European Commission funded projects have catalogued some 700 NPS and products allegedly containing them. Furthermore, the EU early-warning system, operated by the EMCDDA*, currently monitors over 300 new drugs.

The use of traditional drugs, such as heroin and cocaine, appears to be declining in some parts of the world, while the abuse of prescription drugs and new psychoactive substances is growing. This is according to the World Drug Report 2013, launched by UNODC on 26 June at a special high-level event of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna.

For the first time, the number of substances reported exceeded the total number of substances under international control (234). The report describes how the international drug control system is now challenged by the speed and creativity of the NPS phenomenon.

 What are ‘legal highs’?

‘Legal highs’ are substances which try to produce similar effects to illegal drugs (such as cocaine, cannabis and ecstasy) but that are not controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. These new substances are not yet controlled because there is not enough research about them to base a decision on. However, more and more ‘legal highs’ are being researched to see what the dangers are and if they should be made illegal.

‘Legal highs’ cannot be sold for human consumption so they are often sold as “research chemicals”, bath salts or plant food to get round the law.

The main effects of almost all ‘psychoactive’ drugs, including ‘legal highs’, can be described using three main categories:

  • stimulants
  • ‘downers’ or sedatives
  • psychedelics or hallucinogens.

Some drugs sold as ‘legal’ actually have been found to contain one or more substances that are, in fact, illegal.

What are the risks of ‘legal highs’?

Just the fact that a substance is sold as legal to possess, doesn’t mean that it’s safe – you can’t really be sure what’s in a ‘legal high’ that you’ve bought, or been given, or what effect it’s likely to have on you.  We know that the use of many current (and ex) ‘legal highs’, like mephedrone (meow-meow), Ivory Wave and 5-IT, have been directly linked to emergency hospital admissions and, in some cases, deaths.

Whilst drugs in each of the categories will have similarities in the kinds of effects they produce, they will have widely different strengths. Also, these three categories do not detail every reported risk of every ‘legal high’. In fact, for many ‘legal highs’, there has been little or no useful research into the short or long-term effects in people.

Stimulant ‘legal highs’ act like amphetamines (‘speed’), cocaine, or ecstasy, in that they can make you overconfident and disinhibited, and can induce feelings of anxiety, panic, confusion, paranoia and can even cause psychosis. They can put a strain on your heart and nervous system. They may give your immune system a battering so you might get more colds, flu and sore throats. You may feel quite low for a while after stopping using them.

‘Downer’ or sedative ‘legal highs’ act similar to benzodiazepines (drugs like diazepam or Valium), and like cannabis or GHB/GBL, in that they can make you feel relaxed or sleepy and reduce concentration and slow down your reactions. ‘Downers’ can make you feel lethargic, or forgetful, and can make you physically unsteady and at risk of accidents. They may cause unconsciousness, coma and death, particularly when mixed with alcohol and/or with other ‘downer’ drugs. Some people feel very anxious soon after they stop taking ‘downers’, and if a severe withdrawal syndrome develops in a heavy drug users, it can be particularly dangerous and may need medical treatment.

Psychedelic or hallucinogenic ‘legal highs’ act like LSD, magic mushrooms and ketamine. They create altered perceptions and can make you hallucinate (seeing and/or hearing things that aren’t there). Some strong hallucinatory reactions (‘bad trips’) can lead to the person acting erratically, sometimes without regard to their safety. Some psychedelic drugs create strong dissociative effects, which make you feel like your mind and body are separated. Both of which can interference with your judgement, which could put you at risk of acting carelessly or dangerously, and of hurting yourself, particularly in an unsafe environment.

Many of these risks are increased if the ‘legal high’ is combined with alcohol and/or with another psychoactive drug.

Are ‘legal highs’ illegal?

‘Legal highs’ are substances which produce similar effects to illegal drugs but that are not controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act.

However, some drugs sold as ‘legal highs’ have been found to contain one or more substances that are, in fact, illegal. The truth is that you cannot be 100% sure what they will contain.

A number of substances previously referred to as “legal highs” have now been banned under the Misuse of Drugs Act, for example mephedrone. Being in possession of or supplying a controlled drug is an offence.

Like drinking and driving, driving while under the influence of drugs, including ‘legal highs’ is illegal – with some ‘legal highs’ you could still be unfit to drive the day after using. You can get a heavy fine, be disqualified from driving or even go to prison.

Why should we be concerned?

So what is this all about and should employers be concerned about their use and impact?

Any Drugs and Alcohol / Substance Abuse Policy should be an ever evolving document and process, and be reviewed regularly. It should address the issues of today. It should address the impact on the safety critical workforce from substances that can cause impairment.  This includes “over the counter” and prescription medication as well as illegal drugs, alcohol and solvents. However, there is a relatively new risk that should also be included. That is the massive increase in the use of so-called “legal highs”.

Not only do these “legal highs” pose a huge risk to the health and welfare to the user, but the effects they have on the user will cause impairment in the immediate, short, medium and long term.  This impairment may lead to fatal consequences. But the user may not be breaking the law.

So, how big is this emerging problem? Well, because these substances are currently classed as legal, it is a lot bigger than many might think. A simple search on the internet together with your credit card details and your “legal high” is delivered by Royal Mail the next day. Can’t wait until then? Not to worry, some websites will do a personal same day delivery. Failing that, pop into your local “headshop” and you can browse and get advice before making your purchase.

ScreenSafe has seen a dramatic rise in users of these “legal highs” with many enquiries asking about whether we can test for these substances, and whether they are covered under the “Drugs and Alcohol” policy.  “Yes” we can test for them and “Yes” they need to be included in the Policy.

Alarmingly, it is curious “law abiding” persons who would not think about taking illegal drugs as well as the “traditional” user that are being targeted. This includes children of 12-13 right up to 55-60 year olds. Financially, this market place is immense, with some online vendors now reporting profits of £100,000 per week.

These “legal highs” are here and now. This is not a “might be”. This is not fiction.  This is not an “underground” culture. This is mainstream, widely publicised and heavily marketed.

So what should we do now?

The Drug and Alcohol / Substance Abuse Policy is there to protect the employer, employees and members of the public who may come in contact with the company or its actions. While these “legal highs” remain legal, it can be slightly more complex and expensive to test employees for such substances. After all, there are other illegal substances that are often not included in the standard panel of drugs being tested for by employers either. However, ScreenSafe can offer a wide range of tests for a wide range of NPS (legal highs) including low-priced, simple to use urine “dip” tests for Synthetic Cannabis. An integral part to the Policy, testing is there as a tool to establish use and, where possible, at what level.

ScreenSafe also strongly believe that Training, Education and Awareness is key to the success of any Drug and Alcohol / Substance Abuse Policy. Our courses consistently receive very positive feedback, with many attendees citing the course as being invaluable not only as a manager, supervisor, contract head etc but also, and importantly, as a parent.

However, as stated above – policies need to be reviewed on a regular basis as the landscape is ever changing and evolving, to ensure they meet the current climate and requirements. Therefore, the training element is no exception.  ScreenSafe have recognised this and have included “legal highs” as part of our new and improved DandA© course. We also include the topic in employee awareness seminars and are developing further techniques to test for these substances as they evolve.

Any training should also be integral to C.P.D. and add value to the person’s role. Training and education also needs to be ongoing and regular where appropriate.

With the widespread use of “legal highs” and the increased use of alcohol and illegal drugs, there is no better time to raise employee awareness through training, education, updating handouts, literature, policies and induction “tool box talks” etc.

The bottom line is that impairment through drugs, alcohol, substance use or “legal highs” kills. It can kill the user. It can kill persons / employees who come into contact with the user.

Preventing use in the first place will make for happier, safer and healthier employees. If we can do this for just one person, we have made a difference to them, their family, their social community, their employment community and wider communities.

Investment in people / employees now, via training, education, awareness and routine testing is dramatically less than the cost of a compensation claim or even worse, that of a life.

Matt Taylor, ScreenSafe © Jan 2014

*EMCDDA is the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction

References:  Drugnet Europe


Drug and alcohol control is a balancing act – but the scales are awry

“It’s time to have a rational debate”

The title of this blog comes directly from an article published by Westminster Briefing this week. It is written by James Morris, Director of The Alcohol Academy, a London-based voluntary organisation that promotes excellence in local alcohol harm reduction by working with and supporting local alcohol coordinators and strategic leads.

The article focuses on the debate between those who believe the war on drugs is best won by imposing stringent controls on the supply and use of drugs, and those who think that the decriminalisation of illicit drugs will do more to help solve problem drug use.

It’s an excellent article this blog author is happy to recommend, as it succinctly distils the arguments on both sides of this often polarised debate.

Currently, the UK government – and probably most of the UK political establishment – favour the drug controls side of the argument – in deeds at least. There are growing voices from the establishment, such as Chief Police Officers and academics like Professor David Nutt, who have expressed opinions that decriminalisation should be considered more readily. This also reflects a discernible trend across the globe where countries and US States are beginning to loosen controls on certain drugs such as cannabis. As Morris describes, the results are not clear cut, and the Portuguese experience is an example where the outcomes can be complex to determine.

ScreenSafe is part of the drug and alcohol testing sector that works with employers, public health organisations, occupational health professionals, government bodies and voluntary organisations to support their own policies on drug and alcohol use. As such, we can best inform the debate about controls vs. decriminalisation by providing expert knowledge on what we know most about – the ways and means of measuring drug and alcohol use, and of implementing good practice policies.

There’s an important role for the drug and alcohol testing industry whichever part of the debate becomes political reality, and the top organisations in the sector will be those that apply as much a scientific, evidential rigour and non-knee jerk reaction to each request for advice on testing and policy.

Generally, society does need to know who, through their substance misuse, may be a danger to themselves or others (to their children, to their colleagues or to the public for example).

In a ‘controlled drugs world’ it’s important to be able to help determine whether someone is a pusher or a user, for example. If there are laws being enforced that forbid the possession of Class A drugs such as heroin or cocaine, then materials testing is also used to support those measures. Where illegal drugs are risky and expensive to purchase, and where pushers (a combination of business entrepreneurship and criminality) encourage their use, then treatment centres and counsellors will use drug tests as part of addicts’ treatment.

That would be true too, if and when controls are relaxed.

If certain drugs are decriminalized there’s some evidence to suggest their use will increase, following the example set in countries when the prohibition on alcohol was lifted. So, for example, anti-drug-driving campaigns will need as high a profile as anti-drink driving campaigns, and both require a testing provision to support deterrence.

Many argue that testing is an integral part of health and safety education in preference to the control and enforcement sector, though it’s not always easy to separate the two (and it may be naive to try to). The overlap with law enforcement is inescapable, as a huge percentage of criminal acts such as burglaries and thefts are linked to drug addiction.

So can a ‘war on drugs’ be won by controls or by bringing drugs into the legal arena? The political discussions are so polarised progress has stagnated. But the debate about controls vs decriminalisation is too important for it to remain in the playpen – as Morris argues, it’s time to have a rational debate.

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Call for legalisation of Class A drugs

One of the UK’s top police chiefs has said that the “war on drugs” has failed. Giving his opinion via The Observer newspaper, Durham’s Chief Constable Mike Barton said that class A drugs should be legalised, by doing so this would “strip power from criminal gangs”

The chief constable, who is also the intelligence lead for the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) said that “Since 1971 (the Misuse of Drugs Act) prohibition has put billions into the hands of villains who sell adulterated drugs on the streets.”  He further added “Not all crime gangs raise income through selling drugs, but most of them do in my experience. So offering an alternative route of supply to users cuts their income stream off.”

Mr Barton said that addiction are a problem for society and admitted that drugs should be controlled. Those who become addicted should be helped, not criminalised. He feels that if drugs were available from services such as the NHS then this would have a significant effect on the criminal gangs who profit from drug dealing. He further added that legalisation would “tackle the supply chain much more effectively and much more economically than we can currently manage.”

Mr Barton’s views are likely to make for interesting reading for the government. Commenting on current drug legislation a Home Office spokesman said: “Drugs are illegal because they are dangerous. They destroy lives and blight communities.”  They further added”The UK’s approach on drugs remains clear, we must help individuals who are dependent by treatment, while ensuring law enforcement protects society by stopping the supply and tackling the organised crime that is associated with the drugs trade.”

Health chiefs to provide guidance to GP’s on “legal highs”

A spike in legal high related hospital admissions in the the Torbay area has motivated health chiefs to contact GP’s to voice their concerns and provide guidance on how to deal with the issue.

Five separate recent hospital admissions have all linked to legal highs.  Usage of these substances is prominently amongst young people, all of these cases involved teenagers.

A legal high is an unregulated psychoactive substance which is sold as a legal alternative to another substance, usually illegal. They tend to sold on-line. Confusion tends to arise when users associate the term “legal” as meaning that the substance is safe. The reality is however that users cannot be sure of what they are taking and the potential danger they are putting themselves in.

A report released by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in June this year concluded that the UK has the biggest market in the EU for “legal highs”. They found that a total of 670,000 young people in the UK (aged between 15-24) have experimented with the substances on at least one occasion.

Increase in legal high usage in UK

Following a recent report released by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) it has been concluded that the UK has the biggest market in the EU for “legal highs”. They found that a total of 670,000 young people in the UK (aged between 15-24) have experimented with the substances on at least one occasion.

A legal high is an unregulated psychoactive substance which is sold as a legal alternative to another substance, usually illegal. They tend to sold on-line. Confusion tends to arise when users associate the term “legal” as meaning that the substance is safe. The reality is however that users cannot be sure of what they are taking and the potential danger they are putting themselves in. In the majority of cases the substances have not been tested therefore potentially can be toxic to the user.

Edinburgh based drugs charity Crew 2000 has reported that they have seen an “explosion” in people using their drop-in centre.  In the last year there has been a 16% increase in cases involving general legal highs and 11% related to synthetic cannabis usage.

Drug classification is a matter dealt with by the UK government however the Scottish government has pledged to work closely with Westminster to address the rising use of “legal highs”.

In June this year the Home Office unveiled a UK-led international agreement to tackle the threat of ‘legal highs’.

Alcohol and drugs cost UK £36billion a year

A report published by the Centre for UK Justice (CSJ) has found that the UK has the highest rate of addiction to Class A substances such as heroin in the EU. The report, No Quick Fix also shows that the UK has a higher percentage of people who will use amphetamines, cocaine and ecstasy during their lives.

The statistics show that:

  • Alcohol abuse costs UK taxpayers £21 billion
  • Drug abuse costs £15 billion
  • 1.6 million people are dependent on alcohol in England
  • One in seven children under the age of one live with a substance-abusing parent
  • One in five (2.6 million) live with a parent who drinks hazardously
  • One in four adults in England drink to harmful levels
  • One in 20 are ‘dependent drinkers’

Based on these statistics the CSJ expressed their disappointment the UK government has not proceeded with minimum pricing on alcohol however intends to publish policy recommendations to help solve both drug and alcohol issues in the UK.

Home Office team identifies 27 new legal highs in 2 year period

In 2011 the Home Office set up the Forensic Early Warning System (FEWS).  Their role is to identify new psychoactive substance (NPS) and report their findings to Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.  This allows ministers to act quickly and implement temporary class drug orders (TCDO) where applicable.  The aim being to reduce the amount of substances available either on-line or via retail outlets – “headshops” and allow further analysis of the substance to establish its potential danger.

A legal high is an unregulated psychoactive substance which is sold as a legal alternative to another substance, usually illegal. They tend to sold on-line. Confusion tends to arise when users associate the term “legal” as meaning that the substance is safe. The reality is however that users cannot be sure of what they are taking and the potential danger they are putting themselves in.

Since its inception the FEWS has flagged up 27 new psychoactive substances. A recent report released by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) concluded that the UK has the biggest market in the EU for “legal highs”. A total of 670,000 young people in the UK (aged between 15-24) have experimented with the substances on at least one occasion.

Workplace drug testing

Why would an employer have a substance misuse policy?

In the rail and maritime industries it is mandatory.  Indeed the Oil Companies International Marine Forum (OCIMF) guidelines state that:

  • “shipping companies should have a clearly written policy on drug and alcohol abuse that is easily understood”
  • “seafarers be subject to testing and screening for drugs and alcohol abuse by means of a combined programme of un-announced testing and routine medical examination.”

So where does testing fit into other workplaces? What is important for employers to understand is that a testing procedure can help them to maintain a safe workplace. As part of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, they also have a “duty of care to provide a safe working environment.” Part of this duty is to ensure they do not knowingly allow an employee to work when their behaviour is impaired by alcohol or after misusing illegal drugs.

Any new policy in a workplace can be difficult, especially one dealing with a sensitive issue like this. The type implemented will often be based on the size of the company and the working environment. ScreenSafe can help you with all aspects of the process, from initial consultation to delivering all the required elements – including policy writing, training and education, testing and treatment services.

Substance misuse can be costly employers through absenteeism and reduced productivity. By having a robust clear policy it not only reduces the risk to them, but also allows them to assist those affected by substance misuse.