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The Science Behind Hacking a Drug Test

Using fake pee? Adding vinegar to the sample? Borrowing piss from a friend? How does it all work?

When you acknowledge the arguments against drug testing in the workplace — it assumes drug use correlates to performance; it invades your privacy; its methods differ by state and company; its accuracy is entirely dependent on who performs the testing (and even done well, its certainty is questionable, and some studies suggest that drug tests produce false positives in 5 to 10 percent of cases) — one could argue that cheating on a drug test is a courageous act of protest.

Many, of course, have engaged in such protests. “Drug testing — particularly workplace urinalysis — over the last several decades has always been a bit of a cat-and-mouse game,” explains Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (note that Armentano does not suggest in any way cheating on drug tests). “For as long as there’s been a requirement in certain industries that those industries drug test their employees for off-the-job use of controlled substances, like marijuana, there’s also been a parallel cottage industry providing would-be employees with potential products and advice with respect to how to thwart those tests. And as drug-testing technology has changed and evolved over the years, that cottage industry has similarly adapted.”

And while it continues to adapt, the ways in which people generally attempt to deceive drug tests — urinalysis, that is, because blood tests and hair tests are virtually impossible to dupe — can be boiled down to three main tactics: Adulteration, dilution and substitution. Tag along as we explore the ins and outs of each.

Adulteration

This involves adding something to your already-filled pee cup that may result in a false negative by either interfering with the test or destroying the drug metabolites in your pee. “Adulterants are chemicals that are added to the sample itself, assuming one has the ability to give the sample in an environment where one could engage in spiking the sample with an additive,” Armentano explains. “Obviously, that’s not a situation that applies for everybody. But there are a number of chemical compounds that will throw off the results of a urine test. Most of those chemical compounds are very common compounds found in household products.” 

Vinegar and lemon juice, for example, were found to sometimes result in false negatives by a recent study, “but little is known about how exactly they interfere with [urine drug screening test] results.”

There are several hurdles when using adulterants, though. “The real issue is whether one is in an environment where they can get away with spiking a sample unnoticed and whether or not the compound itself will throw off other indicators in the sample that would raise red flags — throwing off the color of the sample, throwing off the pH of the sample, things of that nature,” Armentano explains. “Those companies that engage in drug testing aren’t unaware of the fact that those adulterants are out there, and the reason they tweak their technology and add additional testing protocols to look for things like the pH of a sample is because they’re aware.”

And like I mentioned before, whether or not you get caught for adulterating your sample could very well depend on the individual performing the test and whether they care to take a deeper look. “That’s a rather unpleasant task,” says Dale Gieringer, state coordinator of California NORML and co-author of Marijuana Medical Handbook: Practical Guide to Therapeutic Uses of Marijuana. “Almost all of these things can be detected if the labs are looking for them, but the labs don’t bother to always test for them, because that’s an additional step.”

Dilution

Dilution is perhaps the most common method used in an attempt to circumvent drug tests, and the idea is that increasing your fluid intake or using a diuretic can essentially dilute the concentration of drug metabolites that you pee out to an undetectable level. “With respect to diluting the sample, that generally involves the use of some sort of diuretic product that the person consumes in the hours immediately before they provide a sample,” Armentano explains. “Virtually any product that’s advertised or marketed that advises someone to consume it before a test, whether they advertise it as this or not, is in fact a diuretic. There’s really nothing else it could possibly be.”

In many cases, dilution works. “It’s very likely that a sample that’s diluted will test negative,” Armentano says. “The bigger question is whether that sample will not be flagged for being really diluted.” As Gieringer explains, “Sometimes the labs say, ‘Hey, this is too watery a sample.’ But usually they give you a second test after that.” In which case, you may at least have a little more time to cleanse your system of the drug metabolites (note, however, that different drugs remain in your system for different amounts of time, weed being the most long-lasting).

Substitution

As the name suggests, substitution involves using either fake pee — which theoretically has the same pure compounds and density as actual pee — or clean pee from another person. Again, this approach is only really viable if no one is supervising you while you provide your sample, and even then, there are some potential obstacles to success. For one, many states have banned fake pee, and while the dark web exists, the effectiveness of these products is always questionable.

The other tricky thing about using fake pee or clean pee is that drug testers regularly check the temperature of your sample, and cold pee is a huge red flag for them. Many drug test cheaters swear by keeping fake or clean pee warm by transporting it in an artificial bladder tucked into their waistband with a heating pad. This is, however, a hit-or-miss way to keep pee warm.

And once again, as Armentano notes, drug testers are constantly coming up with new ways to prevent people from doing this kind of thing. “Methods and principles that may have applied 10 or 20 years ago may not necessarily apply now, and those that apply now may not necessarily apply in the future, because the technology is always changing,” he says.

To say that any means of cheating a drug test is perfect, then, would be a stretch. But so would be saying that the tests themselves are perfect. So, uh, maybe we should just scrap the whole thing?

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