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Massachusetts court ruling casts doubt on employee follicle drug testing

By Stephen C. Webster
Friday, March 8, 2013 10:53 EDT
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A man with thinning hair. Photo: Shutterstock.com.
 
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In a lengthy ruling (PDF), the Massachusetts Civil Service Commission said Thursday that six Boston police officers fired for tests that returned positive for cocaine must be returned to the job with back pay, in a decision that could have wide-ranging effects on City of Boston workers.

The decision ultimately amounts to a take-down of hair follicle drug tests, according to The Boston Herald, with the court ruling that such testing “does not meet the standard of reliability necessary to be routinely used.”

Officers Ronnie Jones, George Downing, Shawn Harris, Richard Beckers, Jacqueline McGowan and Walter Washington each had very different explanations as to why there might have been cocaine detected in their hair follicles, yet all were summarily fired in the last decade. The board’s ruling reinstates them to their jobs with back pay dating to October 2010.

The court’s ruling, while complex and filled with details unique to each officer’s case, boiled down to whether hair testing has “achieved general acceptance within the scientific or law enforcement communities.” And while hair testing is thought to be a reliable method of detecting long term, low level use of a substance, the court found that ultimately it is “not necessarily conclusive of ingestion” of an illegal substance.

Reasons for the presence of cocaine given by officers included a recent prescription of lidocaine, living near a crackhead, keeping drug evidence in the same pocket as food and accidental physical contact after mistaking the drug for powder from a doughnut. Although ten officers were part of the suit, four had their claims denied based on the evidence they presented.

The court noted that it was not satisfied with the body of scientific evidence showing that environmental contamination — which it called “expected” among law enforcement personnel — can be ruled out in positive test results. The court also took issue with the use of a minimum-detection threshold, saying “much more drug must be found in order to infer ingestion than merely the minimum amount that the instrumentation is capable of detecting.”

The city may yet appeal the decision, the Herald noted, or otherwise face having to revise its policies for drug testing employees.
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Photo: Shutterstock.com.

Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster is the senior editor of Raw Story, and is based out of Austin, Texas. He previously worked as the associate editor of The Lone Star Iconoclast in Crawford, Texas, where he covered state politics and the peace movement’s resurgence at the start of the Iraq war. Webster has also contributed to publications such as True/Slant, Austin Monthly, The Dallas Business Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Weekly, The News Connection and others. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenCWebster.
 
 
 
 
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