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Understanding LCMS in Family Law: Hair Follicle vs. Urine Testing

WHS Guardian

3 min read

Jun 12

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When family law solicitors navigate cases involving substance use allegations, accurate and reliable testing methods become crucial. Liquid Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry (LCMS) is one of the leading technologies used for drug testing, offering a highly precise way to detect various substances.

Since starting as Northern Rivers Drug and Alcohol Testing all the way back in 2017, we have seen the landscape of drug testing in court matters change drastically.

This article provides an overview of how LCMS works and compares two common testing methods: hair follicle and urine testing, highlighting their respective advantages and disadvantages.


What is LCMS?

Liquid Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry (LCMS) is an advanced analytical technique combining the physical separation capabilities of liquid chromatography with the mass analysis capabilities of mass spectrometry. This combination allows for the detailed identification and quantification of compounds in complex biological samples. Here's a simplified breakdown of the process:

  1. Sample Preparation: The biological sample (hair or urine) is prepared for analysis.

  2. Liquid Chromatography (LC): The sample is injected into the chromatography system, where it is separated into its constituent components.

  3. Mass Spectrometry (MS): Each separated component is then ionised and passed through a mass spectrometer, which identifies and quantifies the compounds based on their mass-to-charge ratio.


LCMS is renowned for its high sensitivity, specificity, and ability to provide comprehensive drug profiles, making it a preferred method in legal contexts where accuracy is paramount.


Hair Follicle Testing

Pros:

  1. Long Detection Window: Hair follicle testing can detect drug use over a long period, typically up to 180 days. This makes it ideal for assessing long-term substance use patterns.

  2. Tamper-Resistant: It is difficult to alter or tamper with hair samples, providing a reliable record of drug use.

  3. Comprehensive Analysis: Hair testing can reveal not just the presence of drugs but also the frequency and amount of usage over time.


Cons:

  1. Cost: Hair follicle testing is generally more expensive than urine testing due to the complex preparation and analysis required. In total, a hair follicle test by a reputable Australian Laboratory is about $600 - $1,100. Even a foreign, non-accredited laboratory still charges around $750.

  2. Detection Delay: Drugs take longer to appear in hair follicles, usually about a week after use, which may not be suitable for detecting recent use.

  3. Potential Bias: Hair colour and texture can influence drug absorption rates, potentially leading to variability in results among different individuals.


Urine Testing

Pros:

  1. Short Detection Window: Urine testing is effective for detecting recent drug use, typically within the past few days to a week, depending on the substance.

  2. Cost-Effective: Urine tests are cheaper and faster to process than hair follicle tests. An immunoassay test can be done in our office within 15 minutes (assuming no drugs were detected). If drugs were detected, LCMS results are available within 48 hours.

  3. Widely Accepted: Urine testing is a well-established method and is commonly used in various settings, including legal contexts.

  4. Standards Available: Unlike hair testing, there are standards for urine testing, notably AS/NZS 4308:2008 (to be replaced by 2027 with AS/NZS 4308:2023).


Cons:

  1. Short Detection Window: While this is an advantage for detecting recent use, it is also a limitation for assessing long-term drug use.

  2. Easier to Tamper: Urine samples can be more easily tampered with or adulterated, which can compromise the reliability of the results.

  3. Less Comprehensive: Urine testing provides a snapshot of recent drug use, approximately 4 days, but does not offer the same historical insight as hair testing.


Conclusion

In family law cases, the choice between hair follicle and urine testing depends on the specific requirements of the case. Hair follicle testing is preferable for assessing long-term substance use and provides a comprehensive overview, albeit at a higher cost and with a detection delay. Urine testing, on the other hand, is ideal for detecting recent use, is more cost-effective, but is more susceptible to tampering.


LCMS enhances both methods by providing precise and reliable results, ensuring that the findings are scientifically robust and defensible in legal proceedings. Understanding the strengths and limitations of each testing method allows family law solicitors to make informed decisions that best serve the interests of their clients and the integrity of the legal process.


Ultimately - if you are trying to figure out if someone had a drug problem in the past 3 - 6 months, you want hair testing.

If you want to know if they have a drug problem now, you want urine tests.


Keep in mind, for what 1 hair follicle test costs, we can do 6 random urine tests at our Lismore office.


If you have received orders to get tested or are a solicitor unsure of what testing you think may be best to request, please call our office on 1300 183 984.

WHS Guardian

3 min read

Jun 12

18

0

0

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