A test that's too sensitive

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Radley Balko points to an article about a drug testing device that appears to be rather too sensitive:
A Welsh assembly member who called for his colleagues to volunteer to try out a new drug detection machine has tested "positive" for cannabis himself.

Swabs taken from Conservative AM William Graham's hands at the Welsh assembly building revealed traces of the drug, probably from a door handle.

He had arranged for police to come in to demonstrate the hi-tech machine.


It is so sensitive it can detect the equivalent in drugs of a grain of salt in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

A similar test of fellow AM Ms Hart showed that although she had not been using drugs, her hands had been cross contaminated with traces of the substance, from door handles, money or other public areas.

"You could pick it up from anywhere couldn't you?" she said.

The machine is used by Gwent Police to test people queuing for a night club, and to detect traces of drugs in a house where the actual substances had already been removed.


Divisional Crime Prevention Officer Pc Simon James said that while the results could not be used as evidence, they can indicate to officers that a person should be searched or questioned.

Let me see if I have this right: when ordinary people going into a club show up positive, they're subject to suspicion and potentially questioning or search, but when politicians come up positive, we just accept that they're not on drugs because they say so? If they're going to maintain their innocence, then a reasonable person would have to conclude that this device has an unacceptably high false positive rate. Unfortunately, we're dealing with politicians:

Mr Graham, who represents South Wales East, said: "Anything that deters people from taking drugs is a good thing. If people know this thing exists then they will know that they might get caught".


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An alternative interpretation: the detector is not too sensitive, the Welsh politicians in question really are potheads, and this is just a run-of-the-mill case of high-ranking people escaping legal accountability.

Yes, that's what I'm implying with "we just accept that they're not on drugs because they say so". That said, I've heard independent reports that a lot of everyday stuff (money in particular) is contaminated with traces of drugs.

Yeah, I've heard that the average US twenty dollar bill has enough cocaine on it that drug dogs will react to it. Keep your bills in your wallet when going through airports or other places where such dogs hang out.

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