from the close-enough-for-government-work dept
Field drug tests are notoriously unreliable. False positives abound. But law enforcement agencies still use them. First and foremost, they use them because no court, policy, or legislation has told them they can’t.
But they also use them because they’re cheap (~$2/per), portable, and, most importantly, prone to producing false positives that allow cops to do the things they really want to, like perform warrantless searches, affect warrantless arrests, and seize cash and personal property.
Anything from doughnut crumbs to honey to bird poop can be viewed as an illicit substance, provided the faulty tests do their job as poorly as cops hope and turn the solution to a color that says “adios, constitutional rights!”
That these substances often turn out to be innocuous when subjected to lab tests doesn’t matter to cops. It’s the initial positive that gives them permission to start destroying lives. It may ultimately matter to courts, but by the time charges are tossed, plenty of damage has already been done.
Any test that doesn’t involve a lab should be considered suspect. (And even lab results are far from impeachable…) But government agencies are often more interested in doing their own thing than ensuring rights aren’t violated and the lives of those paying their salaries aren’t senselessly (and often permanently) disrupted.
A contractor providing drug test services to hundreds of family courts, drug treatment programs, and probation/parole offices has been found to be generating garbage results on a far too regular basis. (h/t Michael Vario)
Averhealth’s former lab director Sarah Riley testified during a family court case last year that up to 30 percent of the company’s test results submitted to the state of Michigan were wrong, including both false positives and false negatives, according to a court transcript obtained by VICE News through a Freedom of Information Act request.
“Did you say 30 percent, ma’am?” the judge asked her. “Three zero,” Riley replied.
That’s just in Michigan. According to the report from Alicia Hines for Motherboard, Averhealth has contracts in 34 states and runs up to 8,000 tests a day. That’s over 2,000 potential blown calls every day, year after year. Michigan has finally ditched Averhealth — at least for the time being — but that only happened after a year of testimony and internal complaints from Michigan government employees about the unreliability of swab tests Health and Human Services performed.
Blown calls mean the state’s DHHS could separate parents from their kids and send children to foster homes. But Averhealth also contracts with probation officers and drug treatment courts, which means not only can people lose contact with their children, they can lose their jobs, homes, and freedom even if they’re not using illegal substances.
Averhealth — like others in the field (others who also have the same reliability problems) — utilizes a two-step process for drug testing. The first test involves a saliva sample that it mixed with a reagent that then reacts to chemicals in the saliva to guess what substances (illegal or otherwise) may be present in the person’s body. Averhealth then follows this up with a better test — a mass spectrometer examination of the same sample that is far more accurate.
The problem is that many entities utilizing services like Averhealth rarely wait to take action until the lab results are in. Initial screenings are when things start going wrong for innocent people. Averhealth isn’t an anomaly. It’s just another symptom of a problem that is nationwide and involves multiple government contractors.
That’s all standard practice in the industry, even outside Averhealth. But an otherwise foolproof process becomes less so when steps are skipped, and scandals are more common than you might think. In New York State prisons, an investigation published in 2022 found that inmates were being punished and put into solitary confinement because initial screening results came back positive for the opiate buprenorphine. As it turned out, the test maker had failed to disclose internal research showing over-the-counter cold medicine, antacid, and even stevia could trigger false positive results. At the same time, prison managers were skipping spectrometry confirmation altogether. A court-watching nonprofit found a similar situation in New Orleans in 2018, when only immunoassays were used. Neither of the scandals involved Averhealth.
What does make Averhealth stand out is that this high level of inaccuracy isn’t limited to the quick-and-dirty saliva swab tests. Its lab work is equally suspect. Quality control in the lab appeared to have been nearly nonexistent. Variables that should have been checked and double-checked with blind tests and other control methods weren’t, resulting in the generation of more false positives and negatives.
Riley, who has a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology, explained during her testimony obtained by VICE News that spectrometry instruments are only accurate if properly calibrated. Temperature and many other tiny and constantly changing environmental variables can shift results, so machines are constantly checked with so-called “quality controls.”
But Averhealth was trusting the results even when the quality control tests failed—and reporting erroneous results to the state of Michigan, according to Riley.
What should have made lab techs second-guess results was treated like a speed bump on the route toward results. Tests that failed to confirm positive saliva swab tests were ignored. The original — more questionable — result was reported to Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services as lab-confirmed results indicating illegal drug use.
Averhealth has responded by vaguely threatening legal action over “defamation” and claiming Riley is nothing more than a disgruntled employee with an ax to grind. But Averhealth can’t explain away failures that are documented by its own communications with state agencies — ones that include a clerical error by a lab tech resulting in 13 results being attributed to the wrong people and 139 people testing negative for substances they’d actually used due to bugs in the processing software.
Averhealth is the extremely exposed tip of the iceberg. Saliva swab tests are gaining popularity because they’re easier and less intrusive than other methods, like the ever-popular urine drug screens everyone from potential employees to parolees have been subjected to for decades. But with longevity comes established protocols, baselines, and remedies for false positives. Saliva swabs are still relatively unknown and, even as the user base for this method grows, its reliability continues to be questioned.
“Easier” and “cheaper” almost never mean “better.” But what government agencies desire are cheaper, easier methods that ease workloads and are more likely to survive budget reviews. The collateral damage to people’s lives appears to be an acceptable tradeoff in far too many cases. And companies like Averhealth that pretend they’re not part of the problem are just going to keep screwing up until the problem is too big to ignore. But by the time that happens, countless people will have had their lives destroyed.