Science of hair testing for drugs questioned in Boston cop case; cocaine blamed on cookies, donuts

Six police officers in Boston who were fired after testing positive for cocaine use will be reinstated, with back pay, now that a state board has struck down the science of hair testing for drugs as 
unreliable. The ruling could have broad impact on drug testing for city workers, and other populations routinely subjected to a form of drug screening in which snips of hair are analyzed for tell-tale traces of illegal substances.

The Boston Herald reports that the firings of four other ex-cops were upheld by the commission. Some gave elaborate and innovative excuses for their positive tests. One told the commission his test was a false positive...

because he brushed white powder off the seat of his cruiser, which he “assumed was confectionery powder from doughnuts.” He also said he lived in a townhouse that shared a heating vent with neighbors who were crack smokers, records state.

Another told commissioners he had a “habit of putting drugs ... from suspects in his pocket where he also kept cookies to eat.”

More: Cops’ firing for drugs reversed [Boston Herald, HT: @Liam_ODonoghue]


  1. I don’t know what to make of the tension between clandestine/sanctioned amphetamine partakers and their once-removed ‘subjects.’ Fibbers, all. We’re already on the watchlist – sack up. 

  2. The other day when i was at the grocery store, there was a sign in the spice aisle that if you wanted poppy seeds you had to get them at customer service. I am guessing they write your name down in the same book they use for purchasers of sudafed.

          1. “That crap?”

            “A drug is not bad. A drug is a chemical compound. The problem comes in when people who take drugs treat them like a license to behave like an asshole.” – Frank Zappa

            Similarly, sobriety is not bad. Sobriety is a choice. The problem comes in when people who choose sobriety treat it like a license to behave like an asshole.

          2. I guess Zappa was hitting the “of course free will is independent of biology, c’mon!” a little too hard?

            When you’ve got the ‘Reefer Madness’ team running around, taking itself seriously, you do need some counterpoint; but if a drug doesn’t alter one or more of behavior, perception, or mood, what kind of lousy excuse for a drug is it?

          3. @twitter-209007841:disqus  I know enough about Zappa to be pretty sure he’d rather have you thinking for yourself than reflecting some cherry-picked interpretation of what you think a dead guy you’ve most likely never met might have to say about the lives of yourself and others (even when that conflicts with what he ACTUALLY said).

  3. I’m assuming that all the cops involved are 190% less amused at any of these excuses if provided by a public defender, no?

  4. You can find cocaine on most of your paper money.  It transfers between bills when it gets put in cash registers.  Which then gets on your hands…

    Lots of officers have terrible habits when it comes to handling any evidence, let alone drugs.  The worst of the lot are the narcs.  There are test kits available for making a presumptive identification of the various illegal drugs.  But show a suspected drug to most narcs, the first thing they do is sniff it or put a finger in it and dab it on their tongue.

    Which is why I used to jog to the cadence:

    “If I had a low I.Q., I could work narcotics too.”

    You may safely assume I disapprove of their “technique”.

    1. I’m extraordinarily skeptical of your claim. In short, I think you’re making it up. Here is reason #1: there are many, many illegal narcotics that present as a white powder, for which a small dab on the tongue would be an active dose. In some cases, an overdose. Any narc who “tested” drugs the way you describe would have a very unpleasant experience before too long.

      Also, you simply can’t identify many drugs by smell or taste.

      1. I can’t speak to the argument one way or another, but the first two sentences of that post are fully excellent.

    2. You may be interested to know that TV and movies (especially) don’t often present an accurate portrayal of police procedure.

      1. I saw CSI London once, the real deal. They weren’t in designer suits or high heels, they looked like the guys in “Almost Famous” that worked in the hotel and came up to pump Lady’s stomach. Just regular people with wooly jumpers on. No glam, all business.

      1.  Especially with some of the crap used in drug manufacture, and some of the crap used to cut drugs down at the street level.

        1. I’ve heard rumors that 2C-B is sometimes cut with comet.  2C-B is an incredibly painful drug to snort is the rationale as to why they’d think to mix powdered bleach with it.

      2. You think the narcs are in their right minds?

        That’s a thought that never occurred to me.  Familiarity breeds…

      1. 10 mg of coke on a $1 bill is the break even point (1 g for a $100!).  According to the link, the max found was less than 1 mg.  So please don’t smoke your cash.

    1. I know someone who had his underarm hair tested because his hair was short.  I would imagine that dealing with a male who is supposed to be drug-tested, but has all his hair shaved off, would be seen as suspicious.

  5. So we should all keep our eyes peeled for thin, wiry, anxious cops rushing around trying to make a bust?

  6. seems to me that just because the hair test isn’t conclusive evidence, that doesn’t invalidate it as a noninvasive (cheap?  don’t know) method of easily flagging groups that do warrant further testing via urine or whatever else.

    1. I think the point with hair analysis is that it can record results that have accrued over several months, if not years, whereas the evidence of drugs in urine goes away fairly quickly. It isn’t that the drug sticks to the hair, it’s that evidence of drug use is baked into the hair, so to speak, as it grows.

      1. If the Wikipedia article is at all acurate, hair testing only works for detecting metabolites for up to 90 days after ingestion, and not all illicit substances are listed as testable using hair.  

  7. Some years back, I was at a press conference where a new Chief Constable was advocating drug testing. A problem with such testing, as demonstrated in UK prisons, is that it preferentially detects less problematic drugs like cannabis rather than the faster undetectable and more troublesome cocaine.

    In an excellent bit of prankster activism, another speaker managed to share some home made cake around beforehand. Very nice poppy seed cake it was too. 

    Halfway through the conference, they challenged the Chief Constable over drug testing and whether they thought _they’d_ be clean. Then they informed him about the poppy seed cake, which he’d already been eating. Although there’s nothing psychoactive in there and extraction isn’t really plausible, the metabolites are close enough for a hefty false positive.

  8. More tests. More screening. You can’t be certain. Test everyone and everything. Test the testers and then test the testers that tested them. Don’t stop testing. Everyone is on drugs! Trust no one!

  9. The Boston Police Union and the Civil Service Board wouldn’t let you fire a cop in Boston even if they were found Scarface-like face deep in cocaine.

  10. Being from Boston here, I find it funny that all of the cops in question had such bogus excuses for them testing positive. The donuts cop for example: Doesn’t he get training on how to identify cocaine. Especially with all his experience eating donuts, you would think he would know the difference?! 

    1. Being from Boston myself my impression of years of stories about the Boston Police Union is that its main job is to prevent officers from being held accountable for anything.  Its paper alone (“Pax Centurion”) is an exercise in racism and far right-wing politics.  It even tried to prevent testing to see if officers were showing up to work with alcohol in them after there was a fire truck accident unless they got more money.

  11. It must be snowing cocaine today in honor of these upholders of justice. Here’s to hoping they’re back on the beat in Dorchester ruining the lives of minorities for committing the same crimes they were exonerated of.

  12. 25 years ago I started work in a factory owned by a US conglomerate (just after high-school).  My roommate started the same day.  We knew there was a drug test, but hoped to sneak past it.

    My roommate and I had shared the same joint a few days earlier.  He failed the drug test and I did not – he was fired and I worked there for 2 years.  My only explanation is that I had an extra cup of coffee in the morning (more water in my urine) and that I was about 30 pounds heavier.  I suspect that whatever the tolerance rate (i.e. 50 ppm) I was just under and he was just over.

    After I’d been at the factory for a few months I found out that the manager who administered the testing was also the source to buy pot or hash if you wanted it.  He would let people know a few weeks in advance of their test, and they would always pass with flying colors.  Not much help for my roommate, but it was a shit job anyways so no long-term loss to him that I could discern.

    In other words, testing is bullshit, and when the system is rigged it is all just a pantomime to please the bosses.

  13. Hey guys, BoingBoing is showing this as the top post. According to Google Cache there should be a quite a few more above.

    Edit: It’s apparently a Firefox issue. Not affecting Explorer.

  14. I once had a discussion with a friend who was a member of our armed forces. He had just returned from a week of debauchery in Mexico. Concerned for him, I asked how he expected to pass the drug test that awaited him on return to duty.

    “If I smoke a lot of cigarettes and drink a lot of beer, I’ll pass.”

  15. I find it hard to believe that hair testing results in false positives. They generally us GC/MS (gas chromatography/mass spectrometry) to detect drugs. A molecule has a pretty definite fingerprint in this test. No other molecule is going to be detected at exactly the same peak in the GC and MS together. These cops are lying. 

  16. Here’s the problem as I see it. These drug tests do not test for only the raw drug, they also test for metabolites. In other words, they test for what the drug breaks down to within your system as well. This makes it a trivial task to determine if the drug was environmental or ingested.

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