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Drug testing myths: Know the facts

Jan. 2, 2013 - 02:43PM   |   Last Updated: Jan. 2, 2013 - 02:43PM  |  
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It would take eating a lot of poppy seed bagels to register a positive result on a drug test, according to Naresh Jain, director of National Toxicology Laboratories Inc. in Bakersfield, Calif.
It would take eating a lot of poppy seed bagels to register a positive result on a drug test, according to Naresh Jain, director of National Toxicology Laboratories Inc. in Bakersfield, Calif. ()
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In 2008, two Navy air traffic controllers based in Mayport, Fla., tested positive for cocaine use during military urinalysis. Turns out both had been drinking the same herbal tea made from coca leaves. Both fought the findings in separate courts-martial.

One was exonerated, the other found guilty by a military jury.

It just goes to show how tricky — and dangerous for your career — urinalysis can be.

Drug testing is a good tool but not a perfect one, says Naresh Jain, director of National Toxicology Laboratories Inc. in Bakersfield, Calif., and professor emeritus of pharmacology and toxicology at the University of Southern California's School of Medicine. Jain helped set up some of the military's first drug labs.

"Even in the military, when you're talking about any drug — marijuana, methamphetamine, PCP, LSD, anything — just because someone tested negative doesn't mean they didn't use it."

The windows to catch drug users are short. It depends on how much is used and how often you void your urine. "If someone uses some drug on a Wednesday — say, marijuana or cocaine — and he gives a sample on a Monday, he will most likely go undetected," Jain said.

Traces of some drugs, such as LSD, are gone in as few as 12 hours. Methamphetamines and amphetamines take the longest to wash out of the system, lasting up to a week or longer.

Sometimes mistakes happen, he says, and more often, results can be misinterpreted. Meanwhile, long-disproven drug testing myths live on.

Here are some of the most common:

Passive smoke

Military lawyers say it's probably the most common defense among those who test positive for marijuana use: "It wasn't me — I was just standing next to someone at the concert or party." Technically, yes, it's possible for passive smoke to make you pop positive, Jain says. "But it's almost impossible. Some years ago, the National Institutes of Science did tests on that, and the smoke had to be so thick people had to wear goggles — it was literally almost like tear gas — before they were able to trigger a positive."

Poppy seeds

Maybe you've seen the "Mythbusters" episode on this. Poppy seeds come from the poppy plant, which is where drug makers get the raw material to make morphine. "So, they can trigger a positive drug test," according to Jain. The higher the quality of the poppy seeds, the more likely this could happen, he says. "In the case of military testing, however, they are cognizant of this fact and have established higher detection levels." It takes 4,000 nanograms per milliliter of urine, to be exact, before it will register as a positive.

Jain says it's unlikely that even several poppy seed bagels would do this, "but if you've been eating a lot of poppy seed-filled cakes over an extended period of time, there are some studies that show you can test above 4,000 nanograms." German and eastern European breads and pastries — the Polish makowiec, for example — commonly use thick layers of poppy seed paste.

Hemp seed oil

An increasingly popular cooking and cosmetics ingredient, hemp seed oil can also get you in trouble. Hemp produces tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.

"There are traces of THC in the hemp seeds," Jain says. And just like poppy seeds, the higher the oil's quality, the more THC. "Studies have been done within the last 10 years where some people did trigger above the [Defense Department] cutoff levels by using normal amounts of hemp seed oil."

More recently, however, hemp producers have been using plants with much lower levels of THC, making positive drug tests increasingly unlikely, he says. "I can't give a definitive answer that it will never trigger a positive, but more likely it will not."

Marijuana brownies

Now that recreational pot use is legal in Colorado and Washington state, far-out foodies are already cooking up all kinds of new recipes for their favorite herb. But watch out, Jain says. Anything cooked with marijuana can get you in trouble. While the high from eating marijuana in food is typically much more subdued, as the THC is more slowly absorbed into your bloodstream, "as far as testing is concerned, it's no different than smoking it," Jain says.

Raw pot

Even eating marijuana raw — say in a salad — can be a problem. Scientists used to think pot had to be heated before THC metabolites would show up in drug tests. "But now we know that even the heat of the sun as the plant is growing does that." While raw pot has only about 10 percent to 15 percent of the THC levels as marijuana that's cooked or smoked, if you eat enough, it will register.

Vicks inhalers

Some Chemistry 101: There are two forms of methamphetamine — l-methamphetamine and d-methamphetamine. The d-type is found in the stuff cooked up in meth labs and sold on the streets, while the l-type is used in Vicks inhalers and other nasal decongestants. Some drug tests can't tell the difference, but "the military labs are able to distinguish between the two," Jain says.

Mate De Coca

You can buy bags of these tea leaves on Amazon for $9, but they could cost you your career.

Just ask Javier Trevino. He is the petty officer second class who was found guilty of using cocaine after a friend suggested the tea as a great caffeine-free drink. Jain, who testified as an expert witness in his trial, found 4.8 milligrams of cocaine in one of the bags he tested. Jain is convinced the sailor had no idea. Indeed, his buddy, another air traffic controller in the same unit, was exonerated of wrongdoing.

"The Marine Corps judge was furious," Jain said. "He said the government had not given an iota of evidence to find this guy guilty and asked the commander to throw out the verdict." That didn't happen.

Jack3d

Despite persistent rumors, Jack3d — and other bodybuilding supplements containing DMAA, or 1,3-dimethylamylamine — will not cause a false positive for illegal drug use. DMAA supplements, however, were yanked from base stores last year because of possible safety concerns, though they have not been banned.

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