Blockbuster drug-testing questioned

March 25, 1993|By Ross Hetrick | Ross Hetrick,Staff Writer

A Blockbuster Video franchisee wants to test its Baltimor County employees for drugs by taking samples of their hair, but the attorney general says the testing method may be illegal.

"Hair testing does not appear to be consistent with Maryland law," said Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. Only state-approved laboratories that analyze urine and blood can be used for drug testing in the state, he said.

But an attorney for Psychemedics Corp., the company hired to do the testing, said the law does not specifically prohibit the testing of hair and that the law was being misapplied.

The issue was the subject of stories on television stations WJZ and WMAR on Tuesday and radio station WBAL yesterday.

The 300 employees at 11 Blockbuster Videos stores in Baltimore County were told in February that they would be tested for drugs in March or early April. "We are commited to providing a drug-free workplace," said Christopher M. Sweeney, director of store operations for NDI Video, a division of New Day Industries Inc., the Atlanta-based company that operates the franchise.

About 60 strands of hair would be removed from each employee's head and sent to Psychemedics's laboratory in Santa Monica, Calif. The method is more expensive than blood and urine tests, but New Day says it is more accurate and would reveal long-standing drug problems rather than just recent drug use.

"It was also the most dignified," Mr. Sweeney said.

Dignified or not, state law does not allow the use of hair samples for drug testing, and the California laboratory is not certified by Maryland, Mr. Curran said. Drug testing of employees with samples of blood or urine is legal in Maryland, he said.

In addition, Mr. Curran said the Food and Drug Administration has not verified that testing hair samples for drugs is accurate.

But Stephen A. Landsman, counsel for Psychemedics, defended the method, saying it is more accurate than urine analysis. He also said that it is used by hundreds of companies and such agencies as the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Federal Reserve Bank. It has also been allowed as evidence in federal court, he said.

Mr. Landsman also noted that the Maryland law does not specify a method for drug testing; only regulations by the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene require urine and blood analysis. "We believe they have misconstrued the law," he said.

But Mr. Landsman said he wants to avoid a confrontation with the attorney general. "We are not interested in butting heads with the state of Maryland." The company has not decided what to do next, he said.

Mr. Sweeney, of New Day, said his company is waiting for directions from Psychemedics. "We obviously don't want to do anything illegal," he said.

But even if the company can't use hair testing, it will still pursue its drug testing program and will use urine or blood analysis, he said.

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