Issue Paper

Substance of Abuse Detection Technology: Alternatives to Utilizing Blood, Breath or Urine Samples
Enacted: Jan 2005

Alternative substance of abuse detection technologies are any technique which allows for the detection or measurement of drug levels in the body with a degree of lessened intrusion on the offender by not requiring the drawing of blood, the analysis of breath or the collection of urine specimens.


The objectives of drug testing in community corrections are varied depending in part on the type of program or type of offender. Objectives may include:

  1. Assess a client’s level and degree of substance abuse,
  2. Monitor a client’s progress in a treatment program,
  3. Deter the client from ingesting proscribed substances,
  4. Provide a basis for imposing sanctions,
  5. Gain an understanding about substance abuse patterns among offenders within or between jurisdictions.

To accomplish these objectives, agencies have generally focused on two basic methods: the analysis of urine samples for the detection of drug use and the analysis of breath samples for the detection of alcohol use. Over the years these technologies have become widely used in probation and parole.

While these technologies continue to serve the field well, many new tools are becoming available that provide an alternative or complement to these methods. Alternative drug testing or screening methods include analysis of hair, sweat (sensible and insensible) or oral fluids; pupil reaction to light; near-infrared spectroscopy; sleep pattern recognition; voice analysis, handwriting analysis; and others. While these technologies have relative advantages and disadvantages, in general they provide a number of key features that urinalysis lacks. First, these technologies do not require the collection of urine which is widely considered to be a distasteful task at best and could represent a health hazard to staff if not collected in a safe manner. Second, alternative techniques are gender-neutral which eliminates the need for same-sex specimen collectors. Third, alternative techniques are generally much less vulnerable to adulteration or offender manipulation. Fourth, with many techniques, there is no waiting period to collect an alternative specimen. Fifth, there is often the opportunity for faster results and continuous and/or unsupervised testing. Finally, these techniques can often be administered under a variety of conditions and a broader range of settings.

While these benefits are attractive and important, before adopting any new testing protocol, agencies must thoroughly examine any new technology with respect to scientific validity, cost, accuracy, reliability, sensitivity, ease of use, detection periods, potential specimen contamination, bias, legal defensibility and so on. This examination should consider whether the technology will serve evidentiary or prescreen purposes. As with any other technology, there is no single, perfect device or tool.

APPA recommends probation and parole agencies consider all of the substance of abuse testing and screening options currently available as many have emerged in recent years and this trend is likely to continue. Agencies should be clear about their testing objectives and strive to understand as much as possible about the various technologies and their advantages and disadvantages for a scientifically valid and most cost effective use of their finite resources.