Traditional Drug Tests Aren’t Picking Up Synthetic Drug Use

A South Texas judge says that makes it harder to help kids who are using them.

By Reynaldo Leanos Jr.May 16, 2016 10:17 am| ,

Judge Jesse Contreras presides over the 449th District Court in Hidalgo County and deals with juvenile cases. Contreras has done this job for years, but he says the job has become really frustrating.

“Right now, I’m not too happy with that problem. And it’s a big problem,” he says.

The problem he’s talking about? No matter how many drug tests you run on a person, if that person is on synthetic drugs, the drugs simply fail to show up on conventional tests.

“How can we help juveniles that are being arrested, let’s say for a certain offense pertaining to drugs, how can we help them out if our testing is saying, ‘Oh judge it’s okay. The kid is okay.’ Now that’s a dilemma,” Contreras says.

Judge Contreras says he cannot order rehabilitation, for instance, on a child whose tests don’t show the child is on drugs. And he believes that’s a big problem – not only in Hidalgo County, but throughout Texas.

“You know out of the 2,000 that we ordered last year you can say that about 1,500 or maybe even 1,800 were all negative. How is that? It doesn’t make any sense,” he says.

In court, kids are confessing to using the substance. But the results from the Dallas testing center say the opposite.

The current toxicological tests being used across Texas cost between $45 and $52. Judge Contreras says the tests that are proven to detect synthetic drugs cost more – from $62 to $80. He started asking Hidalgo County to upgrade to the more accurate test about a year and a half ago.

“They haven’t listened, people who are supposed to take care of it,” he says.

Eddie Guerra, the Sheriff of Hidalgo County, says the more accurate test is only worth doing in certain cases, such as pursuing a felony charge. Otherwise he thinks they’re just a waste of time and money.

“If we make a felony case, we test the products,” Guerra says. “We’re looking from anywhere between six months to a year by the time we get the return of the result from the crime labs.”

That’s because those crime labs are in Weslaco and in Austin.

At the University of Texas at Austin, doctoral researcher Jane Maxwell studies the patterns of substance abuse across Texas. She says the long wait period for drug results may seem too long to the layperson, but they’re pretty normal to experts. That’s because the chemical composition of synthetic drugs is complex.

“We don’t know how to measure it, and it takes an awful lot of toxicological work to identify them,” Maxwell says.

Back at Judge Contreras’ courtroom, he says that even without a positive drug test, he’s been able to charge some kids because they’re not necessarily sent to him for using drugs.

“Well, they’re coming in with assault charges,” Contreras says. “Mostly the connection we’re seeing is that synthetic is attaching itself to the behavior of the child on a variety of assault behavior, such as aggravated robbery, such as assault against a mom. A lot of family violence against a mom, or brothers or sisters.”

So the charge is for the actual crime while being under the influence. Often, the consequence is some sort of drug rehab. But even then, the drug tests present a new problem. Judge Contreras says rehab centers also use the antiquated testing systems – so at time of random testing while in treatment, kids come out clean.

Why does that matter? On paper, the court cannot ensure that a kid is actually improving. But hopefully the child’s behavior tells a different story.

“What difference do we see? No more tardies, no more absences, better grades, going to class on-time, so they start changing,” Contreras says.

Judge Contreras wants to see changes in his court too. He’s about to ask the Commissioners Court in Hidalgo County for the new upgraded tests.