Melanin in hair can affect drug test results, creating a racial bias. This was the topic of a recent forum hosted by a local chapter of the NAACP to shed light on the matter.
“We just want to make sure that citizens… they know what their rights are and if you’re accused of something that you’re not doing, you can speak up and resources are here to help you,” said Gaylene Kanoyton, president of the Hampton Branch of the NAACP in Virginia.
The NAACP chapter is calling attention to the negative impact that false positives, as a result of hair follicle testing, are having on the African American community such as job loss. By calling attention to the unreliable nature of hair follicle testing, the NAACP wants employers to be aware of the potential flaws of this drug-testing method.
The racial bias of hair follicle testing is at the center of a federal lawsuit filed by Boston police officers who were disciplined for alleged cocaine use. “The plaintiffs deny that they used cocaine, arguing that the hair test employed by the [Boston Police Department] generated false-positive results in processing the type of hair common to many black individuals,” according to the lawsuit.
The Hair Test
The hair test is too sensitive and can detect drugs even if none were consumed by the individual, a lawyer for the police officers argued. “The hair test cannot distinguish between ingested drugs and environmental exposure,” said lawyer Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal.
The lawsuit is awaiting a ruling in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.
Not only can certain drugs penetrate hair from close contact, melanin can affect how drugs bind to hair. STAT News cited a 1998 study that gave participants the same dose of cocaine, but found that darker hair “retained more cocaine” than lighter hair. The result was, “The non-Caucasians in this study had between 2 and 12 times as much [cocaine] in their hair as did Caucasians.”
Another report, compiled through the Pharmacology Education Partnership funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, explained that certain drugs including nicotine, morphine, cocaine and amphetamine have “weak bases” and bind to melanin because it is acidic.
“The more melanin present in the hair, the more binding of weak base drugs. So, for the same dose of drugs such as cocaine and morphine, higher levels of these drugs are present in black and brown hair compared to blond hair,” the report stated.
Despite such findings, whether hair follicle testing has a racial bias is an ongoing debate.
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