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Eye Kit for Drug Screening Not Accurate, Doctors Say

December 18, 1989|DAN WEIKEL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

UCLA physicians said the home test is based on some medical fallacies about the eye's reaction to drugs. Research by Dr. Robert Hepler at UCLA, for example, shows that marijuana has very little, if any, effect on the pupil--a result that prompted warnings to law enforcement about using eye tests in the field as a basis for marijuana arrests.

On the other hand, heroin constricts the pupils, while cocaine can have the opposite effect in large doses. But, the UCLA doctors said, it is unknown whether low and moderate doses of cocaine consistently change the eye in ways that can be measured by the home drug test.

More important, they said, many eye conditions indicative of drug use, frequently occur for reasons unrelated to drugs. Because of this, the group concluded that the test will be highly inaccurate in the hands of parents. They said that many symptoms of drug use are readily noticeable without the home drug test and that parents would be better off consulting their family doctors if drug use is suspected.

"A lot of us get upset in these witch-hunt days," said Dr. Robert N. Pechnick, an assistant professor of pharmacology, who teaches drug abuse classes at UCLA. "The scientific community must take action to see that something that doesn't work doesn't get promoted."

During the review, the UCLA group asked Dr. Stanley Thompson, a widely known eye pupil expert at the University of Iowa, to further evaluate the kit.

"It seems to us that the pupil test is a sham and the flashlight is just something for parents to wave about in the hope of scaring their kids into staying clean," Thompson wrote to UCLA in October.

Tennant and Hannah defend the test, saying the physicians and researchers are ignorant about the program and its successes. It was never meant, they say, to be the sole criterion for suspected drug use and must be combined with more accurate urine testing.

"You don't have to be a whiz kid to do the test," said Tennant, who has run drug abuse clinics for almost 20 years. "I want these people at UCLA to tell me about their drug clinics, and how many people they examine that have eye signs. The eye test works, and if you are a parent and you don't have it, you have given your child another chance to get on drugs."

Athletes for a Strong America claims that if done properly, the eye test is accurate in detecting drug use 80% to 90% of the time. Tennant said that has been his experience in testing drug users at his clinics as well as that of law enforcement officers.

But even if the test were inaccurate, Hannah says, the screening regimen gives children an excuse to stay off drugs. He added that parents are wrong if they think they can detect drug use by merely watching for falling grades, changes in behavior and undesirable friends. By then, he says, it's too late.

Contrary to Tennant's and Hannah's accuracy claims, an August court decision in a civil rights lawsuit challenged the reliability of the eye test, which was given thousands of times to University of Colorado athletes. The suit alleged that the athletic department's drug testing program, which included the eye test used by Athletes for a Strong America, was unconstitutional.

U.S. District Judge Joseph Bellipanni, armed with the university's own statistics about the test, concluded that the examination was wrong 97% to 98% of the time. Medical experts said the tests are also capable of yielding false negative results--failing to detect actual drug use.

The plaintiff, David Derdeyn, a former University of Colorado track team member who now lives in Hollywood, flunked the eye test. But a urine test later detected no drug use.

"This thing has Orwellian overtones and a terrible potential for abuse," said Derdeyn, who described the eye test as "kind of hokey" and "voodoo science."

Similar inaccuracy rates were reported at Youngstown State University in Ohio, where trainer Dan Wathen estimated that the test is wrong 80% to 90% of the time. Nevertheless, Wathen said he considered the eye exam useful for screening.

Tennant and Hannah contend that University of Colorado trainers improperly flunked athletes for failing one part of the test instead of at least two portions as required. Court testimony indicated otherwise.

Besides questions about accuracy, family counselors and others in the drug abuse field contend that home testing can undermine the trust between parent and child during the already trying time of adolescence.

"To create a situation where the parent is playing detective with teens might fuel resentment and anxiety," said UCLA Assistant Prof. Tom Kennon, a family counselor. "Over control could have a reverse affect and widen the gap between parent and child."

But Hannah and Tennant say trust is not an issue. Parents routinely check the whereabouts, health and appearance of their children, so adding another check won't matter, they say.

"I test my son, and his eyes respond pretty well," Hannah said. "I have come to realize that this is actually a trust builder in the home and brings out better communication. Kids and parents feel comfortable with it."

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