Twas the night before 4/20, and all through the head shop, people were readying themselves to ride the green dragon on the high holy holiday of stonderdom. I was there for a different reason.
"I need to beat a drug test tomorrow," I said to the girl behind the counter.
"For work?" she answered.
Weed blogs had already led me to my weapon of choice: a neon orange cocktail made up of vitamins (E, B6, and B12), niacin, riboflavin, folic acid, pantothenic acid, and a whole bunch of sugar. It promised clean-testing pee for up to six hours after ingestion, with a 300 percent money back guarantee. Just 108 calories per bottle, all for $29.95. I also picked up a bottle of activated charcoal pills, which one blog pitched as a great way to absorb all the weed "toxins" in my body.
You see, the practice of testing employees for traces of herb has spawned an entire industry focused on beating such tests—usually of the "pee in a cup" variety—mostly based on armchair science.
This drink contains the right mixture of chemicals to "flush" you, and that pill will "detoxify" your body. This powder is supposed to "balance the pH levels" in your pee, and that vitamin "enlarges blood vessels."
But as resourceful as stoners can be, they're definitely not all doctors or scientists. Did any of this stuff really work, I wondered? Or were these websites just taking people for their money, and maybe even putting their health at risk? There was only one way to find out: talk to some real scientists about these folk remedies, and try some of them myself.
The evening before my drug test, I smoked my last bowl for the next 24 hours and started taking the activated charcoal and drinking glass after glass of water.
All I could think was: I'm going to be pissing a lot tomorrow.
When you ingest marijuana, you're taking in Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, which every stoner already knows as "that shit that gets you high." Scientists prefer to call it marijuana's "parent compound." The THC enters the body through the lungs and is metabolized (or broken down) in the liver, before it goes to your brain via your bloodstream and, well, gets you super duper stoned.
Once weed is metabolized by the liver, THC turns into THCa, an acid that has no psychoactive properties. This is known as a "metabolite," and it's way less fun—it's also what doctors look for in your pee to find out if you've been toking. Another metabolite, called cannabidivarin or CBDv, appears in urine when weed is burned and then ingested, so tests can tell if you're more of a brownie or bong type.
I knew I had a few things working against me going into the drug test. One, of course, is that I lit up the evening before, but my orange drink promised guaranteed results no matter when I smoked, so I wasn't too worried. A 1998 study by the US National Institute on Drug Abuse also found that diluting urine by drinking fluids can produce a false negative in urine tests for subjects who toked up just 22 hours before their test.
More concerning was my winter chubbiness.
"Marijuana is very lipophilic, so it will adhere to fat and incorporate itself into fat cells in the human body," Ron Flegel, director of workplace programs for the US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), told me. "If you are a person who has more fat cells in the body, marijuana can actually be stored for a much longer period of time."
So, yeah, any weed I'd smoked in the last few weeks was stored up inside me, just waiting to narc me out.
Exercise breaks down the bonds that hold THCa in fat cells, Flegel said, which introduces more THCa into the body. Dehydration also concentrates THCa in urine, which increases the chances of testing positive for weed. Thankfully, I'm a lazy asshole, so I was good on the first point. As for the second, I was drinking more water than a university frosh with dry-mouth.
The driving force behind drug testing is a hodgepodge of Reaganite moralizing and a search for profit by any means
Flegel didn't exactly boost my confidence regarding my pincer attack plan for beating the test, courtesy of the internet.
"If someone drinks it right before and that's collected in the bladder, that's what goes in the collection cup," Flegel said. "But if someone's a longtime user, or using on a frequent basis, then sometimes with the cutoffs we use—they're at the nanogram level—sometimes we can detect that."
In other words, even if such drinks successfully dilute your pee and pump it full of vitamins instead of marijuana metabolites, they can't mask weed remnants stored up in your body over time.
As for the activated charcoal pills, it turns out that I may have been led astray by the internet. When I reached out to Nicolas Flamand, associate professor of medicine at Université Laval in Québec City, he told me that, basically, they're bunk.
"Activated charcoal will remain in your digestive system," Flamand wrote me in an email. "So it will not trap what is inside your body fat. It will mainly trap what is in your digestive tract. Activated charcoal is mainly used to trap alcohol or medications that have been ingested and that are still in your digestive tract."
Regarding the miracle, 300-percent-money-back-guarantee, vitamin-enforced orange juice, Flamand had this to say: "If those remedies were indeed good at clearing THC out of the urine and the blood, they would also be very good at preventing you from getting high when you smoke. Drink a lot of fruit juice before you smoke marijuana and you will get your answer."
Fair enough. Things were not looking good, but at least I knew that urine tests aren't completely foolproof, even if I was likely doomed to fail.
At this point, you might be wondering why we do urine tests at all, if they can be (sometimes) fooled by shady treatments you can buy online.
Drug testing at work became popular in the 80s, according to a report by Canada's Office of the Privacy Commissioner, due to a "confusion of forces" including the global war on drugs and a widespread corporate search for the "'perfect' employee." Workplace drug testing was seen as a "quick fix" to a complex social issue like drug use, the report states.
Basically, the driving force behind drug testing is a hodgepodge of good old fashioned Reaganite moralizing and a search for profit by any means.
But why urine testing, and not blood or mouth swabs? According to both Flamand and Flegel, the answer is pretty simple: basically, convenience. It's easy to collect, and we've been doing it this way for decades.
That might be changing, Flegel noted, as metabolite-detecting technology continues to improve and recreational marijuana use in everyday situations (like behind the wheel) becomes more commonplace. Soon, tests might even be able to reliably defeat the DIY tricks that armchair pot scientists sell on the internet.
For example, oral fluid is one vector of testing that Flegel and his colleagues at SAMHSA are considering as the wave of the future in drug testing.
"The science is catching up with oral fluid, since the amount of drug in oral fluid is about 100 times less than what you'd see in urine," said Flegel. "It's a harder matrix to test." But, he added, it's potentially much more reliable than urine, since it would be a lot tougher to dilute or spoof your spit than your pee.
Flegel also noted that spit is much easier and less invasive to collect, and could be done on the roadside, for example. This is of particular importance for Canada as the country moves closer to legalizing recreational marijuana use, and scenarios for regular drug testing move out of the office and into the streets.
Several companies in Canada and the US are also developing breathalyzer tests for marijuana use that can be deployed on the roadside. The latest comes from University of British Columbia engineering professor Mina Hoorfar, who told The Huffington Post that even if other devices and testing methods have a problem with false positives, "there won't be any false positive with ours."
Two hours before my urine test, I cracked open my miracle clean pee juice and glugged it down. I had to drink the entire bottle down in under three minutes, or else it might not work. The best way I can describe the taste is like McDonald's orange juice—the kind they'd serve watered down in big jugs at track and field day in elementary school—but with a distinct… spiciness. It was tougher to down than I thought.
I peed twice in the 45 minutes after drinking the cocktail, per the instructions, and walked into a clinic.
"You'd like to do a urine test for cannabinoids?" the doctor, a young guy with horn-rimmed glasses, asked. "Today?"
"Yeah," I replied.
I peed in a cup, and left. I haven't received my results yet, but whether I test positive or negative, I had to wonder, what would it even mean?
UPDATE: I tested positive.