The Ethics of Cheating a Drug Test

the ethics of cheating a drug test

In many different contexts, you will be required to take a drug test – testing for specific drugs, legal or illegal – and testing positive for any of the prohibited substances will result in some form of non-entry (non-entry into a job, a sporting competition, or a scientific study), or a ban (e.g. being banned from competition, temporarily or even permanently). A urine drug test is a standard way of finding out whether a potential employee or athlete has any prohibited substances in their system.

People can cheat a urine drug test in a variety of ways, such as diluting urine samples (by drinking lots of water beforehand, diminishing drug levels), getting urine from someone else, adding certain chemicals to the urine that can hide the presence of drugs, delaying drug testing so that the drugs are flushed out of the system, and various methods that can detoxify their body from drugs (certain foods and drinks can have this effect). But a newer method for cheating a drug test is now available: using synthetic urine.

Synthetic urine looks like real urine. It also resembles the chemical structure and physical properties of real urine, including the presence of uric acid and creatinine, and having the right gravity and pH level. People might be motivated to use synthetic urine to cheat a drug test for different reasons, such as getting a new job, joining the army, taking part in a clinical trial, completing a drug rehabilitation programme, and competing in sports and athletics. Failing a drug test in the workplace, for example, can have serious consequences, such as job loss and suspensions, which can affect income. So if drugs are present in the system, then the incentive to cheat a drug test is strong.

Cheating a drug test using synthetic urine raises a host of ethical issues that I think are worth exploring since in some cases, this kind of cheating can appear justifiable, or at least devoid of harm, whereas in other cases, it could be considered potentially harmful. 

When is it Permissible to Cheat a Drug Test?

Drug tests serve different purposes in these varied contexts. An employer may want to test prospective employees for drugs based on the belief that drug use could impact their effectiveness at work; researchers will want to make sure study participants are free from alcohol and drug use to increase the accuracy of the results; drug rehab workers will want to know if clients are managing to stay sober; and sporting officials want to ensure that competitors aren’t using performance-enhancing drugs. These intentions ostensibly sound fair, but there is a lot of nuance to drug testing in these contexts that need to be discussed, especially when we consider the question of whether it’s ethically permissible to cheat a drug test using synthetic urine.

For instance, many people would consider drug-testing requirements for work as an invasion of privacy and an infringement on personal sovereignty (except in cases of drug testing for security or safety reasons). Why is it any business of an employer what substances an employee takes in their leisure time? The argument that it matters because it can affect work performance also doesn’t hold up. Many employees can use prohibited substances without any adverse effects on their work.

But even if it could be shown this was the case, the argument would be inconsistent. After all, think about all non-prohibited drugs and behaviours that can affect work performance, either through short-term drug effects or lasting health consequences: this would include drugs like alcohol and tobacco and behaviours like gambling, late-night gaming and tech use, poor diet, and so forth and so on. Taken to its logical conclusion, supporting drug testing in the workplace for reasons of work productivity would have to extend to innumerable employee lifestyle choices and behaviours, which highlights the absurdity and paternalistic nature of the position.

In reality, testing employees for drugs seems to boil down to a moralising judgement about what behaviours are acceptable and which aren’t. Urine tests are designed to detect illegal drugs and prescription drugs (the latter of which is only acceptable if the drugs in question have been prescribed for a legitimate medical condition). These tests aren’t designed to detect alcohol, even though this legal drug is one of the most harmful and disruptive to an employee’s work if abused. This moralising position of employers, aligned with that of the state, which enforces inconsistent drug laws, may be viewed as unethical and dehumanising.

It’s unethical because it denies jobs to qualified people, punishes employees for irrelevant reasons, and essentially monitors individuals’ bodies and personal choices, which is an affront to privacy. And this practice is dehumanising because it renders certain drug use among mature, consenting adults as reasons to consider someone unfit for – and unworthy of – a job. Contrary to this dehumanising view, drug experimentation and use – whether involving legal or illegal drugs – is a very human and common behaviour and, for the most part, it is non-disruptive.

For these reasons, an employee may decide that cheating a drug test is morally permissible because it counteracts the unethical nature of drug testing in the workplace. It can be thought of as a form of justified disobedience. If an employee rightly feels they are qualified for a job and can perform all of their work duties while also using prohibited substances, then cheating a drug test can appear like a necessary (albeit non-optimal) way to live their life as they see fit. The optimal scenario, of course, would be if employers kept their noses out of employees’ private lives and focused only on what was relevant – what employees are actually providing to a company.

The prevalence of workplace drug testing will often vary from country to country. For instance, many European countries have banned pre-employment or random drug testing, except in industries where it makes sense, such as aviation, rail, and shipping industries, which are safety-critical. Although even in these industries, we may question whether the use of, say, cannabis, outside of work hours is risky. And it will still remain the case that alcohol won’t be tested. Drug testing is much more common in the US, in contrast, with 56% of employers carrying it out. There is no evidence that increased workplace drug testing has any real benefits, not least because a drug test can’t tell you whether or not an employee was under the influence of drugs at work. Furthermore, when comparing companies that do and don’t drug test, and comparing countries with a higher prevalence of workplace drug testing than others, there are no clear indications that drug testing results in fewer workplace accidents or better work performance. There is little reason, then, to conclude that cheating a workplace drug test is morally impermissible.

When is it Unethical to Cheat a Drug Test?

There are other scenarios, however, where the impermissibility of cheating a drug test seems clear. If you were applying for a safety-critical job, such as a pilot, but also had a serious addiction to heroin, opioids, cocaine, amphetamines, or benzodiazepines, then trying to cheat a drug test using synthetic urine would appear irresponsible. Such drug use could put people at risk of harm and death. Of course, alcoholism would also entail such a risk, which a drug test wouldn’t look for, but this is beside the point. In the case of drug addiction, failing a drug test would be in the interests of workplace safety and human well-being, whereas passing the drug test (through the use of synthetic urine) could potentially increase the risk of harm to others.

In the case of competitive sports and athletics, the ethics of cheating a drug test becomes more complicated. Firstly, are all the drugs included in these drug tests performance-enhancing? These drug tests can include many illegal drugs, which are unlikely to be performance-enhancing, at least, not in any obvious way like anabolic steroids would be performance-enhancing. So why should it be unethical for a professional athlete, who occasionally uses cannabis, to cheat a drug test? Again, you could argue testing for certain recreational drugs involves the kind of invasion of privacy seen in workplace drug testing.

Furthermore, there are disagreements as to whether a prohibited performance-enhancing drug (either enhancing for a particular individual or widely recognised as enhancing) is more ethically problematic than sanctioned, performance-enhancing drugs, supplements, techniques, and lifestyle decisions. As a case in point, consider the fact that the more red blood cells you have, the greater your ability to deliver oxygen to your muscles, which will affect your performance in aerobic exercise. With this in mind, a group of leading ethicists state in a paper titled ‘Why we should allow performance enhancing drugs in sport’ (2004) stated: “There is no difference between elevating your blood count by altitude training, by using a hypoxic air machine, or by taking EPO [a common blood doping substance]. But the last is illegal.” These ethicists argue that allowing all performance-enhancing drugs in sport – while regulating their use for safety – would reduce the genetic lottery that is inherently involved in sport. They continue:

Some competitors have high PCVs [packed cell volumes, the percentage of blood comprised of red blood cells] and an advantage by luck. Some can afford hypoxic air machines. Is this fair? Nature is not fair. Ian Thorpe has enormous feet which give him an advantage that no other swimmer can get, no matter how much they exercise. Some gymnasts are more flexible, and some basketball players are seven feet tall. By allowing everyone to take performance enhancing drugs, we level the playing field. We remove the effects of genetic inequality. Far from being unfair, allowing performance enhancement promotes equality.

Julian Savulescu, an Australian philosopher and one of the ethicists behind this paper, has made the case for performance-enhancing drugs in a separate paper, arguing that enhancing athletic physiology will lead to athletic improvements, beating records, and recovering better from injuries. In a nutshell, sanctioning performance-enhancing drugs in sports can further human excellence. Also, regulating these drugs can better protect an athlete’s safety. Just as in the case of drug prohibition, the prohibition of performance-enhancing drugs has not – and likely will never – stamp out their use. This means athletes will continue to use drugs in an unregulated and therefore less safe manner. Given that doping is rife in certain sports (e.g. football, bodybuilding, and cycling), this unregulated system entails a lot of unnecessary risks and harm. Finally, drug testing fails to detect dopers more often than not.

However, even if you accept all of these arguments and believe the drug-testing system in sports isn’t working, this doesn’t necessarily justify cheating a drug test within the context of the current system. For example, if you cheat a drug test by using synthetic urine, you wouldn’t be levelling the playing field – this can only happen if performance-enhancing drugs are universally allowed. Otherwise, what you have is a fraction of athletes deciding to cheat drug tests and others not. Many of those who feel confident they could cheat a drug test using synthetic urine may still decide not to, perhaps out of guilt or just wanting to play by the rules. The improved situation that Savulescu has in mind depends on systemic change.

Nonetheless, even if you can’t level the playing field by cheating a drug test, this doesn’t necessarily make the cheating unethical. If you deem the distinction between some sanctioned and non-sanctioned performance-enhancing drugs as unfair, then cheating a drug test may feel justified. It does become trickier, though, if you want to cheat a drug test because you are taking dangerous amounts of prohibited performance-enhancing drugs in order to get ahead. By cheating a drug test in this situation, you would be providing an avenue for you to continue with such drug use, putting your health, mental well-being, and life at risk. But would this be unethical? On some accounts, it could be thought of that way, if it is considered ruining the ‘spirit of sport’, which, according to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), includes values like fair play, honesty, health, respect for rules and laws, and respect for oneself. And even if you used an illegal performance-enhancing drug in a rational and safe way, cheating a drug test would still be dishonest and against the rules.

Whether or not such dishonesty and rule-breaking are unethical is difficult to discern. The very fact that drug cheating involves deception may be unethical according to some ethical theories; for instance, on a virtue ethics account, this kind of deception can build a dishonest character rather than an honest one, making you less virtuous. Michael McNamee, a philosopher who applies a virtue ethics approach to sport, believes that “the values and virtues listed [by WADA] characterize sport at its best: this is what we ought to aim for; these are the positive things that have enshrined sports at their best since their modern re-invention and institutionalization in the 19th century.”

Nonetheless, the ethical weightiness of deception in sport (and the value of virtue ethics more generally in this respect) can be questioned. Is there really a problem if this kind of deception has no identifiable harm or victim? By focusing on just the performance enhancement aspect, instead, cheating a drug test might not be unethical if the spirit of sport is (partly, at least) about improving our natural potential through the use of our judgement and reason, as the ethicists behind the 2004 paper contend.

There may be clearer ethical issues if you want to cheat a drug test so you can appear abstinent to a drug rehab worker, family, or loved ones, as a way for you to continue a destructive addiction. This continued addiction not only spells further harm for you as an addicted individual but can also wreak havoc on those connected to you, ruining bonds of trust through the act of promise-breaking, as well as causing further emotional distress, as your loved ones will continue to see you affected by harmful drug-taking. Then there are other potential harms to be examined, such as how the continuing addiction will lead to harmful behaviour on the part of the addict, such as neglecting duties of care for dependents and instances of violence, recklessness, abuse, and so on.

Another ethically problematic case of drug test cheating would be if doing so to qualify as a participant in a scientific study. Using synthetic urine to pass the drug test would affect the robustness of the study and skew the results. This becomes even more problematic in clinical trials that are testing the safety and effectiveness of medical treatments. Say you cheated a drug test in this scenario: if, for whatever reason, the treatment being tested in the clinical trial had a contraindication with a drug you were taking (that you didn’t want to be picked up in a urine test), researchers may deem this as a reason to consider the drug they were testing as riskier than it actually was.

The market for synthetic urine is legally questionable, with 18 states in the US ruling that cheating a drug test using it is illegal. What is more interesting to me personally, however, is the ethical dimension of using synthetic urine in this way. And with the market for synthetic urine growing and more people using the product, many of the ethical questions raised in this article will need to be answered. If anything, the thriving synthetic urine market calls into question whether the system of drug testing is fit for purpose. It is undoubtedly necessary and sensible in some contexts, but in others (especially in the workplace), it seems we would be better off accepting that people will use drugs and this shouldn’t – in and of itself – be seen as reasons for disqualifying them from certain roles in society.

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