Marijuana sales in Colorado topped $1 billion last year. That may have triggered an upswing in the sale of another product: synthetic urine, which helps users fool employers and parole officers in drug tests.
State Rep. Jon Becker, a Fort Morgan Republican, is concerned about the fraudulent use of synthetic urine and aims to ban the substance in the state. Becker plans to sponsor a bill in the legislature to outlaw the possession or sale of fake pee, making Colorado the first state to both legalize recreational marijuana and ban the common substance used to mask its presence.
Synthetic urine has been made since the 19th Century, when a German chemist figured out how to create its major organic component, urea, in the lab. Urea is one of the most common synthesized products in the world. It’s used in fertilizer, de-icer, hair conditioners, body lotions, glue, tape and thousands of other consumer and commercial products.
Some people use fake urine in place of the real stuff to hide their drug use, and that’s what Becker is trying to stop.
He says it’s a growing problem for probation officers who require parolees to submit urine for drug tests. Fake urine is also used by job-seekers. Government agencies, retail companies and the healthcare industry, among other employers, routinely require drug tests from their prospective workers, and many rely on relatively inexpensive urine tests for those drug screens. The most common urine test looks for five substances: THC (the active ingredient in marijuana), amphetamines (speed or meth), cocaine, opiates (heroin, morphine or codeine) and Phencyclidine (PCP or angel dust).
In Colorado, marijuana has been legal for use by anyone over 21 for four years this month. But under Amendment 64, which legalized recreational marijuana, employers are still allowed to test for on-the-job marijuana use. Case law also gives employers the right to fire workers when THC is detected.
Therein lies part of the problem: urine tests are not that accurate where marijuana is concerned. THC can remain in your system for weeks or even months after you stop using it. That means even if you haven’t smoked in several months, THC could still show up in a urine test. A better way of detecting when someone is under the influence of marijuana or has used it recently, says attorney Rob Corry, who works on pot and other drug laws, is the method police officers use: a blood test. That test looks for the amount of active THC (which can indicate intoxication) versus inactive THC (which doesn’t). A urine test does not make that distinction.
In extreme cases, inactive THC can remain in blood and urine for up to four months and in hair for up to a year, although testing labs usually only test hair for the last 90 days of growth.
Nevertheless, urine is still the most common way to test parolees and prospective employees for drug use, making methods to mask pot still much sought after.
There are several ways to cover up drug use. One is to naturally detox and let the THC work its way out of the body through diet and exercise, which can take four to six weeks, minimum. Another way is to use a detox product, which can take as little as six hours to flush THC out of the body. There are also natural remedies, such as herbal goldenseal (also known as orangeroot) or drinking lots of water, but these are considered pretty ineffective, especially with recent advances in drug testing.
In terms of effectiveness, fake urine is a safer bet. The yellow liquid is available at tobacco shops, “head” shops and marijuana dispensaries. It looks and smells like the real thing and has the same chemical components as genuine human pee. Cost for the most well-rated and reliable products is about $30 for a 3-ounce bottle.
Consumers take the bottle with them to the lab, careful to conceal it, and warm it up to body temperature. Most kits come with a way to indicate when it’s in the range of acceptable temperatures for a test. Then customers put the fake pee in the specimen bottle, and they’re done.
Unless, of course, they’re caught for giving a specimen that’s too hot or too cold, and flunk the test. Using synthetic urine on a drug test is fraud and, in the case of parolees, can put them back behind bars.
But the legal risk apparently isn’t deterring Coloradans. Synthetic urine is widely available throughout the state. In fact, there are two tobacco shops within walking distance of the state Capitol where you can easily buy it..
Dr. Barry Sample heads the employer solutions team for New Jersey-based Quest Diagnostics, which has 31 testing facilities in Colorado. Sample told The Colorado Independent that those who use synthetic urine to hide drug use play something of a cat-and-mouse game with the labs. Quest has a number of safeguards in place to do as much as possible to prevent cheating on urine tests. Its technicians try to make sure donors empty their pockets and bags before taking the test. Once a donor has entered the bathroom, the technician also listens for the sounds of normal urination. (What a job, eh?)
Still, Sample acknowledged, people do manage to work around those safeguards. “It’s hard to assess the extent of the problem, since donors are afforded privacy in the restroom,” he said.
As another safeguard, labs also test specimens to ensure their validity. The problem is that the manufacturing of synthetic urine has been so fine-tuned that it’s often not detectable by those tests.
Sample said at least 14 states have come up with a patchwork of laws to prevent cheating on drug tests. Some outlaw synthetic urine. Others ban an oxidizing agent that’s designed to dilute THC from urine specimens. Most of those states permit the use of medical marijuana, but none have legalized recreational pot.
As Sample sees it, blood tests aren’t a viable alternative. Blood is invasive to draw and harder to test. The trend in drug testing, he said, is moving toward oral specimens, which are relatively accurate and don’t carry the privacy concerns of urine tests. An oral specimen can be taken on the spot by a hiring manager, ensuring that a job applicant doesn’t have the time to let the drugs wash out of his or her system or to buy a cleansing agent that would flush or dilute the drugs. They just spit and are done with it. “Oral fluid tests are much harder to cheat,” Sample said.
Corry believes urine tests are worthless, and that type of testing also leaves open the question of whether an employer can regulate off-the-job marijuana use. Although state courts have upheld an employer’s’ right to fire workers for drug use, Corey says that doing so with only a urine test as evidence is unscientific and irresponsible.
“The whole idea [of banning fake pee] pisses me off,” Corry quipped. “It’s a solution in search of a problem and completely unnecessary. It’s already illegal to commit fraud or knowingly cheat on a probation or employment drug test.”
He also questioned whether employers should be testing employees for drug use that takes place outside of the workplace. “If an employer wants to attract solid workers, let those workers live their lives on their own time, or test for active marijuana impairment…What matters is whether someone is impaired on the job, either from drugs or alcohol.”
Joey Benavides, owner of Headquarters Smoke & Vape near the state Capitol, sells synthetic urine in his shop. He views a potential ban as a violation of personal privacy. He told The Independent he doesn’t assume what customers will do with the product once they leave his store, but for liability reasons won’t sell it to anyone who admits to trying to cheat a drug test.
Becker said his bill will start in the Senate, and he has two senators in mind as sponsors. His measure doesn’t address online sales, although he said he is looking into that loophole.
He acknowledges that sponsoring this bill runs contrary to his belief in smaller government. “I hate new regulations,” he said. But “I don’t see the purpose of someone selling synthetic urine, except for purposes of fraud.”
Becker’s bill will have to withstand challenges based on fact that fake pee isn’t used only to cheat drug tests. It has some legal uses, such as helping to calibrate drug testing equipment. Another legal use is spelled out on the front of the box of two of the three products sold at Headquarters Smoke & Vape. It’s an adult novelty product. In other words, according to Benavides, fetish practices.
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