Skip to Main ContentAn Honest Chance: Perspectives on Drug Courts

How important is drug testing to the drug court treatment process? How many participants try to beat the drug tests?


Brooklyn participants readily acknowledged that drug court participants regularly try to “beat” the drug tests—or will if given the chance:

  • They do try to get over on you. Many times I seen that.

  • People try to get through the program by faking drug tests. People try and people get caught. They try mixing it with water.

  • When I was an outpatient, my urine was dirty all the time. So took it on Monday. You knew when it was going to happen, so the rest of the week, you know, you could get high. It serves constantly to keep you straight.

  • I know for me, an addict, I can’t be trusted for a second.

When asked for a recommendation about the use of drug testing, the participants were fairly clear about its necessity both as a means of enforcement and to provide accountability in the treatment process:

  • If I’m running a program, I drug testing all the time.

  • I was in a program didn’t do enough drug testing, random maybe every 2 months or maybe this week or maybe next week.

  • Random is better if you’re gonna catch people.

  • It should be regular.

  • Being screened is important. Let the person know.

  • It’s good because you come here and your urine is dirty, you’re not walking out the door. . . . They gonna hold you and take you off to jail. You don’t get seen by the judge until we know about the urine.

  • Even though you don’t know when they gonna take your urine, when they get ready to take your urine you feel good about it because you didn’t get high. It’s good to know they gonna take your urine. It confirms what you know.

  • Recommendation about drug testing: Just stay clean. If you gonna get high, you gonna get caught, and then you got so much to lose.

Las Vegas

Las Vegas participants clearly did not like urine tests, but they were quick to argue that the tests are very necessary, particularly observed urine tests:

  • I mean I hate ’em. I hate ’em and I know I’m clean. I hate ’em, but I think it was really helpful, and I see people trying to beat the system.

The focus group leader asked the participants how common it was for clients to falsify their urine tests and how successfully this could be done in the Las Vegas program:

  • Yeah, I already got caught [falsifying].

  • I have two friends who recently graduated, who basically made up their negative tests through the whole program.

  • It’s like when the judge tells you, you know, “Have observed UAs,” Choices don’t know about it, so you go there and you just pee, you know, the way you want, and then you go back and say, “Yeah, I was observed.” They don’t know. . . .

  • But now they put you on observe, you come over here and piss the way you want to piss, then just put it in the microwave for 30 seconds. . . .

  • I would never have learned as much about how to corrupt myself and beat the system had it [urine test] been observed from day 1. I used to play. . . .

  • You see a lot of athletic people drink water . . . and you just have water. He’ll put you on observed and those people are . . . really water.

The Las Vegas responses seemed to suggest that some individuals could falsify their tests at times and, possibly, for a while, but that it was unlikely that one could be successful at such deception for an extended period of time:

  • The longer you do it, the more chances you’re going to get caught. I say 2 or 3 percent may be successful in falsifying, but for the most part everyone gets caught eventually. ’Cause I know, I held out for a whole year, I’d say maybe 6 months of it I was actually clean. The rest of the time I was falsifying. I was just counting days and, you know, making sure that when I did go in I was clean. . . . So it ended up catching up with me.

Participants noted the special policy that was implemented to make all pregnant women have observed urine tests:

  • He did the same thing to me when I was pregnant. All I drank was Sprite ’cause it’s caffeine-free and water because it was a clear view way. I was put on observe and that’s why he started observing all females that were pregnant from then on. Because my UA was too clear, too clean, so I must have been diluting it in order to show that I was not getting high. And I wasn’t getting high.

There seemed to be wide agreement in the two groups that all urine tests should be observed.

  • He put me on observe because I got clean too quick.

Without the urine tests, participants agreed that people would be encouraged to spend their energies timing their drug use and thinking that they could “beat” the program:

  • And who are they hurting? They are hurting themselves. . . .


Among Miami focus group participants, there was a general consensus that participants do not cheat on drug tests. They said that the counselors observed them and the tests were random, which made it very difficult to cheat. It was also their impression that the drug court judge was going to know about it if they tried to cheat, and most did not want to risk the consequences:

  • I don’t think anybody does. . . . You get watched. . . . You get watched every day.

  • It’s a random thing so it’s very hard.

  • If they feel or have reason to believe [you are doing it] they’ll watch you. . . . They catch up with you regardless, trust me.

  • You can be watched. . . . You can do it if you want to do.

  • The doors are open. . . . They do it random.

  • If you’re not clean, you’re only lying to yourself.

One individual, who was new to the program, argued that it was easy to cheat on the drug tests. This generated some debate among the more experienced focus group participants, who strongly disagreed:

  • You go in there intense—you bring in ClearEyes, Visine.

  • I don’t agree with that, ’cause you can piss in a bottle ahead of time and keep it the same temperature for a day or two.

  • No it won’t. . . . Not the body temperature.

  • I know. . . . I did that before. It will stay the same temperature.


Portland focus group participants generally agreed that it is not very difficult to cheat on drug tests, particularly during the later treatment phases when only weekly UAs are required. According to some participants, some individuals can plan their drug use in between UAs with a fair chance that the drug use will go undetected. However, once participants have been caught, the frequency of tests is increased and their tests are observed by staff. When this occurred, drug court participants reported that it was nearly impossible to continue using drugs and still “drop clean UAs.”

  • It’s very easy . . . because I’m on weekly UA, so I know if I have my UA on Monday, ain’t going to have another until next week so you can do whatever you want.

  • Yes, that’s true, as long as you allow yourself a few days. Well, I think it’s easy until you get caught and then you get a double-digit number.

  • Yeah, I hated UAs, I hated UAs, I hated UAs . . . because I was constantly at battle with them, you know, gearing my life around my use and my UA, and then they became my best friend because that’s what kept me from using.

San Bernardino

San Bernardino focus group members also believed that it was highly unlikely that participants could fake drug tests successfully:

  • Because the way they test you. There’s no way to fake it.

  • You mean how many people beat them? You get caught in the end.

  • I guess about five people I know of have beaten it. That’s what they’re claiming. I don’t know for a fact.

  • Having that guy stand there? Yeah. Has to be all observed. [Consensus.]

  • I know one person who actually didn’t never stay clean and graduated from here. . . . Not with drugs, but he was drinking three or four a night.


Seattle participants echoed the views of the other sites in stressing the importance of drug testing and the low likelihood of “beating” the tests:

  • Probably because we stay straighter because of that; otherwise, you know we’d cheat, a little bit here, a little bit there.

  • I think the drug testing helps. . . . Here it’s random, really random. You never know when you’re going to test. I think that helps a lot.

  • [How often do people cheat?] Can’t . . . I mean we tried, but . . . I saw this one guy when I went court and he had this strap on and it had someone else’s urine and an IV switch to turn it on and off. . . . You can try.

  • They actually watch you. There’s a mirror on the wall.

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An Honest Chance: Perspectives on Drug Courts April 2002