Would YOU steal a lock of your child's hair to test them for drugs? This father did...
As he switched on his laptop in the sitting room of his comfortable London home, James Faber was understandably nervous. Within minutes, he would know if his teenage son had been taking drugs.
Surreptitiously filling in his details online, he paused for a moment. How would he feel if Joel had been taking cocaine or heroin? How would his wife react if Joel had been smoking marijuana?
Their 14-year-old son had certainly been acting oddly. He was moody, unresponsive and always sleepy. He had started using foul language and had been hanging out with older, rougher boys.
And so, the previous week, a worried James had taken a sample of his son's hair – without his knowledge. James had controversially asked their barber to collect a lock of hair from Joel – and his precocious older cousin, Matt, 17, who he suspected was a bad influence on his son.
He had then sent off the specimens to the U.S. to be analysed for evidence of drug abuse. He was prepared for bad news – and now the moment of truth had arrived. A result flashed up on the screen. Joel had tested negative. James's fears for his son had been unfounded, although his cousin, Matt, did test positive for marijuana.
Now James faced a modern dilemma. How would he tell Matt's parents that their son had gone off the rails? Would they be angry at his intervention without their consent? Tough questions, but ones that could soon be debated in homes up and down the country, as the drug testing kit used by James becomes widely available in Britain.
Fans of HairConfirm believe it is an invaluable tool for protective parents and a weapon in the fight against drugs.
Either way, the U.S. company launching the test here expects it to be a bestseller. So just how does the new test work?
'The kit has been on the market in the U.S. for two years,' says HairConfirm chief executive Zeynep Ilgaz. 'We found there was a huge market among responsible parents who wanted a test they could do anonymously, within the privacy of their own home.'
The company requires a 11/2in sample of hair, from as close to the scalp as possible, from which it can detect drug use over the past three months. Parents simply need to pop the sample in a pre-paid envelope, post it and the results will appear on a password-protected website within 48 hours.
The company offers two tests. One covers the most common recreational drugs: cocaine, heroin, ecstasy, methamphetamines, opiates, marijuana and amphetamines. The other detects prescription drugs, such as addictive painkillers.
The kits – which are sold in Britain through AstroSupplements and independent pharmacies – are more reliable hair drug test than tests that rely on a urine sample, which can detect drugs only up to three days after they have been used.
But critics warn that the £59 kit could tear families apart, destroying trust, while civil liberties campaigners say it undermines our most basic right to privacy. Illegal substances are embedded in the hair shaft for far longer and are protected from contamination. It is also easier to obtain a hair sample without a teenager's co-operation.
If the test comes back positive, the parent is given an indication of the level of drug abuse. They are then referred to a free drug counselling service.
'We emphasise that the kit is only a tool in the fight against drugs,' says Ilgaz, who is based in California.
'Communication really is key: parents have to talk to their children about what they are doing and why it is dangerous.'
The majority of parents' suspicions are unfounded, but still a frightening 40 per cent of samples result in a positive test, most for cocaine use.
Some cases are shocking. One test came back showing that the teenager's sample contained 100 times the amount of cocaine that would be classed as 'recreational'. 'That was the highest result we've ever recorded,' says Ilgaz.
Disturbingly, one father contacted HairConfirm to test a lock of hair from his eight-month-old baby. It came back positive for cocaine, in high levels, which the baby had been receiving through his mother's breast milk. The father used the
result in a custody battle. However, most people buying the kits are the parents of teenagers. And the peak time for positive results is during the summer holidays.
'This is a wonderful way to put a stop to drug use by your child,' says one mother, Cinde Aguilar. 'I keep the box on the table and let them know weekly testing will be done.'
Another parent says: 'I thank God for the product. We caught our son early, after only months of use, but unfortunately he was already addicted. He has just been released from rehab with a totally new outlook on life. I believe it helped save our son's life.'
But David Gilbert, chief executive of Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE), warns that parents should be careful how they use the test.
'If you do it without the consent of your child, you might find out the facts, but you could also create friction,' he says. 'It is far better to talk about it first in an adult fashion.
'Having said that, I've been a senior police officer for 30 years, and teenagers do lie about taking drugs. Used in a transparent and supportive way, this could be useful.'
For his part, James, 35 – who found out about the test two months ago on Google and is one of the first British parents to have used it – believes he did the right thing. His wife, Jane, who is seven months pregnant, said she wished he had told her before he tested Joel, but was glad to learn her son was clean.
The extended family were at first angry that he had tested Joel's cousin. 'Matt's dad was cross,' says James, a building contractor from Catford, South-East London. 'I understand why, but Joel spends a lot of time with Matt, and I needed to know if he was doing drugs. His parents said I should have told them first. But I think, deep down, they are grateful that I was proactive.'
Matt has since promised his family he will stay away from marijuana. 'We just have to hope he does,' says James. 'Time will tell.'
James's relationship with Joel is stronger than ever. 'It has improved our relationship,' he says. 'It has removed a question mark that was hanging over us.
'A lot of children at his school smoke cigarettes. I don't blame the school – we don't give teachers the power to keep on top of teenagers.
'I was so innocent at Joel's age, but youngsters now see so much sex and drugs on TV, then they want to be like the people in the programmes. They spend their time hanging out with friends doing who knows what, and when you tell them off, they get stroppy and won't talk to you.'
The negative result from the test, however, has allowed them to forge a new bond.
'I feel I can relax now. I know he's a good boy. In fact, we've just been sharing a beer in the garden, because I feel I can trust him. It's helped us to talk about drugs.
'I would do it again. You can do something to help if you nip drug abuse in the bud. In my view, I'm only being responsible.'
Joel was at first taken aback that his father had stolen a lock of his hair for the test, but says the experience has been a wake-up call.
I couldn't believe he'd done it and my friends were shocked. But then I wasn't fussed because I knew I hadn't taken anything,' he says.
'Matt's family is strict and they're embarrassed and disappointed in him. M
att's a bit annoyed with Dad, but he only did it for his own good.
'I have to admit it would make me think twice about taking drugs in the future because I know Dad will find out. That makes it not worth it. If more parents knew about this, fewer teenagers would do drugs.'
Some names have been changed.
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