Every morning, people line up to give drug-screen samples inside a nondescript building a block from the sheriff’s office on Main Street.
At the offices of Hall County Treatment Services, as many as 500 samples are tested at the department’s in-house lab each week.
Hall County is one of only 15 counties in Georgia with its own drug-screening lab, an operation that saves money, increases efficiency and holds drug and DUI court participants more accountable, officials say.
“We’ve caught a lot more folks trying to dilute their specimens,” said Debbie Mott, treatment services director. “It has definitely brought about a behavioral change in our participants.”
Hall County’s accountability courts, started in 2001, involve long-term court supervision of offenders combined with substance abuse treatment and frequent drug and alcohol screens.
For the first five years the courts were in operation, treatment service employees used “Instacups;” drug-testing kits that cost $3.25 per test. The process could give false positives, and confirmations required mailing them to a California-based toxicology lab.
The process was neither cost-effective or time-efficient.
Judges expressed “gut feelings” that some participants were “getting away with” drug use, Mott said.
In August 2006, Hall County became one of seven pilot counties or judicial circuits to open its own drug-testing lab through a statewide contract with Siemens Healthcare Diagnostics.
Two lab technicians are contract employees, and the massive chemistry analyzer they use is included in the cost of the tests, roughly 70 cents for every substance tested.
Mott said on Monday and Tuesday of this week, typical days at the lab, 284 specimens were tested for alcohol, cocaine, marijuana and other drugs, with 29 yielding positive results. Those tests, under the old system, would have cost $4,315, Mott said. With the in-house lab, they cost $1,391, she said.
The bulk of the costs are covered by the participants, who pay a monthly fee to be in drug court, Mott said. Some grant money is also used, making the lab largely self-sufficient, she said.
The lab also runs tests as ordered by judges in cases outside the accountability courts, and has an agreement to do testing for the local office of the Division of Family and Children Services.
Inside the waiting area and the lab itself, collections run like clockwork, seven days a week. Court participants are required to call a phone number to learn whether they’ve been selected for a random test. They report either early in the morning or late in the afternoon, where they fill out a form, get a small, plastic sample jar and are escorted to a bathroom.
“Every collection is observed, and I can’t stress how important that is,” Mott said.
If a participant admits in writing that he or she has used a prohibited substance prior to the test, that admission will be given consideration by the court, Mott said.
“Positive results with admissions get treated differently than positives with denials,” she said.
Positive samples are stored for up to three months, meaning several refrigerators are filled with specimens at any given time.
Lack of sufficient space is the biggest factor preventing more counties from operating their own drug screening labs, Mott said.
“A lot of drug courts throughout the state just don’t have this kind of space,” Mott said. “We’re fortunate, through the support of the judges and commissioners, to have this.”