Drug Court Testing Protocol

Each drug court is unique in how it operates based upon available resources, community and court expectations and limitations, demographics of participants, cultural requirements, and a myriad of other variables. However, there are guidelines that govern acceptable testing procedures, such as those established by the American Probation and Parole Association (5), that are used in the development of policies and procedures used in drug court testing.

Owing to the impact of drug-test results in a drug-court system, it is imperative that the testing results be accurate and timely. Because cost is the major factor in the design of most drug court testing protocols, programs utilize the most comprehensive testing protocol possible based on available resources.

5.1.1. Minimum Standards

After a full panel test is run to establish a qualitative baseline, random tests are conducted not less than twice a week during the first 3-4 mo or until the participant demonstrates a prolonged (usually 3-mo) period of continuous sobriety. After this, random testing is conducted at least once a week for the duration of the program. Many programs test three times a week during the initial period of the program, twice per week during intermediate phases, and at least once per week during the later phases of the program. All participants must be tested for their primary and secondary drugs of choice, as determined on the baseline test and during the intake assessment. Full-panel screens are interspersed throughout the program to discourage drug-of-choice shifting. It is further suggested that samples be screened for adulterants and dilution, which further validates test results. All sample donations must be directly observed, their temperature monitored, and the chain of custody regulated. This is true for tests being sent to an outside laboratory as well as those being tested at the collection center.

Some drug-court participants go to great lengths in an attempt to continue using drugs while in the program. They will attempt to adulterate samples, dilute samples, bring in someone else's sample, have someone else donate samples for them, or just fail to give a urine sample.

Protocols are designed and followed to minimize these attempts to invalidate the drug-testing portion of the drug-court program.

A basic tenet of drug courts is the necessity of providing immediate responses to both negative and positive drug tests. Participants appear before the drug-court judge on a regular basis so that their progress in treatment can be reviewed, their compliance with other programs and community supervision conditions can be monitored, and their behavior can be rewarded or sanctioned.

Drug-test results are vital to this process. Research has shown consistently that rapid response is more effective than delayed response where any meaningful behavior change is the goal (6). It is imperative that results be available to court and treatment personnel as soon after testing as possible. In many cases, as in open court, results must be available in minutes, not days. This need for rapid results has led many drug courts to utilize point-of-collection (POC) hand-held devices or to set up their own instrumented laboratories.

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