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One of Connecticut’s many “steady habits” is its penchant for passing legislation characterized by good intentions accompanied by less desirable, unintended consequences. A chief example is the drug testing provision in our state’s controversial new Police Accountability Act (PAA). 

We all want our police officers to be clear-headed and free from the influence of drugs. But contained within the 71 pages of the new law are a virtual labyrinth of pitfalls and “gotcha” moments more likely to punish good police officers than deter bad ones. 

Section 3, paragraph 10 of the law is perfect example of how the law can spring a trap that could result in financial hardship and ruin the reputation of an upstanding police officer. It mandates that in order to keep their jobs, police officers must submit to a urinalysis drug test that screens for controlled substances, the result of which indicate “no presence of any controlled substance” (emphasis added). 

This “zero” standard is contrary to virtually all types of drug screening available to employers across the nation – and it defies science, logic and national consensus standards for drug testing. In any scientific testing, there is a cut off, permissible or threshold limit value that ensures the test will detect impermissible drug use without returning “false positives” in order to optimize overall accuracy. 

Apparently, Connecticut legislators missed the famous episode “Seinfeld” when Elaine failed a drug test immediately after eating a poppy seed muffin. This was drama on television for the sake of comedy. In real life a drug test would show the trace presence of morphine or codeine but not meet the cut off level.

Now, under Connecticut’s new law, it’s entirely possible a law-abiding police officer could find themselves in an analogous – but far less funny—situation; in fact, there are a host of everyday products with cross-reactive properties that could trigger false positives.

Calibrating drug tests to allow for trace levels both allows for the likelihood that common substances will lead to trace levels in a person’s urine and take into account test accuracy (margins for error aka cross-reactivity). Some common medications that show up as “trace levels” include (but aren’t limited to): cough medicine, over-the-counter Ibuprofen, weight loss pills, sleep medications and even secondhand smoke.

Allowing some minimal cut off levels prevent the embarrassment and reputational damage that come with a failed drug test. Although results are supposed to be private, the reality in any public safety service is that when a member tests positive, s/he is placed on leave and co-workers will either suspect or know the reason. 

Most testing programs around the nation are regulated by the guidelines supplied by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a division of the U.S. Health and Human Services Administration. The other prevalent standard is regulated by the Department of Transportation. All 50 states utilize their best practices and have cut off levels for drug tests. Why would Connecticut deviate from this sound public policy?   

SAMHSA guidelines are a proven benchmark for drug testing. Abandoning these standards defies common sense and basic humanity. PAA must be amended to protect law abiding police and the taxpayers who are supporting them. 

Frank Ricci (@frankriccidc), is currently Senior Strategist at Yankee Institute, was the lead plaintiff in the landmark Supreme Court case  Ricci v. DeStefano  and  a retired battalion chief & union president for New Haven Fire Fighters. He is an advisory board member of  Fire Engineering Magazine.    

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