Pilot drug tests using hairs may lead to similar system in schools

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 May, 2010, 12:00am

Drug rehabilitation centres and social outreach services will launch a pilot drug testing scheme next month that uses hair samples as an alternative to urine tests.

A strand of hair cut from near the crown of the head can show whether the person has taken drugs in the previous three months.

Officials of the Security Bureau's narcotics division held a workshop yesterday for more than 20 non-government organisations and related rehabilitation centres on the two-year pilot scheme, which could lead to similar tests being done in schools.

'The pilot scheme can help improve understanding of the effectiveness of hair tests as one of the tools on drug testing,' a Security Bureau official said. 'We would not rule out the possibility of introducing hair drug tests in schools in future.'

The tests, to be conducted by the Government Laboratory, can show traces of cocaine, marijuana, Ketamine, Ecstasy, Ice and cough medicine.

The voluntary and free tests will be done on samples collected by social services organisations that have joined the pilot scheme and will yield results within five working days.

The laboratory's existing equipment can perform 50 hair tests a week, which is expected to be doubled when equipment costing HK$6.3 million arrives in September.

Thirty-four social services outreach teams, 40 voluntary in-patient programmes, seven centres providing counselling services for psychotropic substance abusers, and seven substance abuse clinics operated by the Hospital Authority have joined the scheme.

The security official said the pilot scheme would give social service workers a clear history on the types of drugs their clients had taken and whether they had relapsed during rehabilitation.

The narcotics division said the tests were extremely accurate and the sample collection was not as invasive or embarrassing as urine tests.

The test can trace the pattern of drug-taking from seven days before the tests to at least three months, while urine tests can only detect drugs taken a few days before. But the hair test does not pick up very recent drug use and is of no use with people who have short or shaven hair.

NGO representatives said they were worried that young people, who were very concerned about their hairstyles, would not consent to having some cut off.

But the official said the removal of a few dozen hairs would be barely noticeable as everyone loses 100 to 150 hairs naturally during the course of the average day.

Hair dyes would not affect the accuracy of the results.

Many international schools in Hong Kong already use hair samples to test for drugs. At the Hong Kong International School, consent to random inspections of personal belongings and drug tests through hair sampling is a condition of enrolment. In the school's secondary division, two pupils are randomly tested every day.

The government opted for urine testing in a pilot scheme for voluntary drugs tests in schools - launched in Tai Po in December and due for review in the middle of the year - because these are easier and cheaper than hair tests.

A quick urine test costs HK$10 while a full analysis is about HK$180. One hair test can cost up to HK$1,000 in overseas laboratories. The Security Bureau did not reveal the cost of hair tests at the Government Laboratory.