What would you do if your client claimed their drink had been spiked with ecstasy, yet tests indicated they were a habitual user of the drug?
In December 2012, Mr W. was off duty and socialising. He was given a drink which he later suspected had been spiked, almost certainly with MDMA. He reacted very badly and ended up in hospital. The following day he reported the spiking incident to the police and blood and urine samples were taken immediately as a matter of course. The spiking of his drink was investigated and a man was arrested in connection.
Mr W. awaited the inevitable court case where the ‘spiker’ would be prosecuted.
On 28 December, 2012, a hair sample was requested from Mr W. and he complied immediately. He anticipated that the hair test would return a negative result, confirming he wasn’t a regular user. However, things were not quite so straightforward.
The hair sample was analysed and the report indicated that Mr W. had used MDMA recreationally over a period of time. This caused some concern about the accuracy of the test and another hair sample was taken from Mr W. on 14 February, 2013. It was analysed by the same laboratory and the result was positive for the second time, appearing to show that Mr W. had used MDMA on multiple occasions.
The case against the accused man who allegedly spiked the drink was subsequently dropped, in part due to the barman, who had originally agreed to give evidence, growing reluctant to testify.
Following the hair analysis results, Mr W. became subject to a police misconduct investigation and his job was under threat. He was adamant that he had not taken MDMA other than on the occasion in December 2012, when he still claimed his drink had been spiked.
Advantages of hair testing
The major advantage of hair testing for drug use, compared to urine or blood testing, is that it can indicate long-term past usage for most drugs. Urinalysis and blood analysis only provide short-term information.
Hair analysis may be especially useful when a history of drug use is difficult or impossible to obtain. However, there is still a lack of consensus among scientists on how to identify external contamination.
Contamination of samples
Contamination of hair would be a problem if the finding of a drug and/or metabolites(s) from a negative specimen led to a positive interpretation. It is unlikely that anyone would intentionally or accidentally apply anything to his or her hair that would contain a drug. The crucial issue facing hair analysis is the avoidance of technical and evidentiary false-positives.
Technical false-positives are caused by errors in the collection, processing and analysis of specimens, while evidentiary false-positives are caused by passive exposure to the drug. Excluding laboratory mistakes, a false-positive hair result can be observed in cases of contamination from environmental pollution (external contamination) or after drug incorporation into the hair from body fluids, such as sweat.
A symptom of MDMA poisoning
Excessive sweating is a symptom of MDMA poisoning. This being so, the presence of MDMA in hair could be explained by the excessive sweating associated with taking the drug, willingly or unknowingly. Therefore, while a negative result excludes chronic use and contact with drugs, a positive result cannot necessarily be interpreted as a sure sign of drug addiction.
Results from a single segment of hair should not be used to categorically state that an individual has had long-term exposure to a drug.
Bearing in mind the potential flaws and external contamination factors in Mr W.’s case, it was concluded that the positive hair findings were more likely to correspond to a single high exposure to MDMA at the time of the incident and external contamination of the consecutive segments by excessive sweating.
While the original tests seemed to indicate a history of substance abuse, our findings poured doubt over them.
- The consecutive concentrations of MDMA in the hair collected on 28 December and 14 February could be considered as identical, and both were indicative of contamination by sweat.
- No metabolite (MDMA) was found in hair.
- The amount of drug ingested (> 400 mg when calculated) was very high in comparison with usual recreational doses (50-150 mg) ingested by regular drug users.
- MDMA poisoning is associated with excessive sweating.
The Court Panel could not decide which view they preferred and consequently, as the burden of proof was on the prosecution, they found the allegation of drug abuse not proved and Mr W. allowed to keep his job. Interpretation is the key, which is why DNA Legal consider the whole case rather than simply taking results at face value. If your client is in need of a second opinion, please get in touch.