Tuesday, April 1, 1997 | 11:59 a.m.
Like so many before you, you step uncertainly into Swag, a tattoo parlor across the street from UNLV that advertises "body piercing and other cool stuff."
You gesture the woman at the counter aside and confide that you're in the market for those, um ... tea flush ... toxic, you know...
She smiles encouragingly and swiftly pulls out a package from behind the counter, explaining that if you take so many each hour and drink so much water, your system should be clear for two hours.
You look suspiciously at the handful of gray horse-pills. What exactly is in there?
She mumbles something vague about an "herbal blend," then leans forward.
"So," she says sympathetically, "when's your drug test?"
So-called "detox flushes," kits that promise to help anyone "beat" a drug test, are entirely legal, widely available and frustrating to employers. No one is telling how many of the kits are sold, although retailers say the flow is steady.
The flushes often come in pill or gelatin form, or served as soothing cuppa minty herbal tea -- fitting for the nerve-wracked test-taker. Made of common herbs and taken with large doses of water, they promise to float you right by the testers -- or your money back.
Of course, who can say whether the product really had an effect -- or if you would have passed anyway. And who's going to help you get your $35 back? The Better Business Bureau? The police?
Still, these are hardly black-market items. Some local stores, like Diversity, advertise over the radio; others, like Swag and Tribal Body Piercing, take out ads in publications. The kits also are sold at the Tobacco Road smoke shop.
Type in the phrase "drug test" on the Internet, and the bulk of website hits refer you to a flushing product.
Despite their ubiquitous ads, two businesses had only one response to a reporter's questions -- a dial tone.
They say to keep your friends close, but your enemies even closer.
So though they are foot soldiers on opposing sides of the War on Drugs, it is apt that Swag and the drug-testing labs find themselves listed a mere half-inch from one another in the Yellow Pages, under "Drug Detection and Testing."
"We're trying to keep a step ahead of these people. It's a challenge to keep on top," says Diane Younghans, marketing manager of toxicology for Associated Pathologists Laboratories in Las Vegas.
Younghans frequently goes undercover, calling manufacturers of the detox flushes and posing as a curious consumer to find out their latest innovations.
"Some of the people I'm talking to have said, 'You shouldn't use drugs,' and chew me out," she says. "But more often, you get a quick feel that their stance on substance abuse is (the government) should legalize drugs."
According to a 1996 survey conducted by the American Management Association, 81 percent of major U.S. employers use some form of drug testing, up from 22 percent a decade ago.
In Las Vegas, APL, the largest lab in town, conducts about 172,000 tests a year for 1,340 companies.
The AMA survey concluded that, nationwide, about one-third of all new hires in 1995 were tested for drug use. That includes office-seekers in Georgia, student athletes at public schools, railway workers and truckers, just about every casino employee in town, even rafters in Boulder City.
President Clinton even floated an election-time proposal to test teens applying for their driver's licenses.
So consider your odds good that someday you will find yourself peeing in a little cup -- cursing the day if you, unlike Clinton, inhaled.
In fact, according to Daryl Grecich, communications director for the Institute for a Drug-Free Workplace, "the majority of Americans -- 96 percent according to a 1996 Gallup study -- support drug testing, regardless of the fact that they have a problem with the privacy issue."
"Most people do not want to work side by side with a drug user, who they have to cover up for, or has behavioral problems, or puts their safety at stake," Grecich said.
Michele Tell, a spokeswoman for MGM Grand, agrees. "Many people want to work in a drug-free workplace. We feel so strongly that we request it of all our tenants, too -- retail shops, restaurants."
"Companies are the one in America who have had success getting drug use down," Grecich said. "A person can't afford to do drugs in today's competitive environment. You can't be a slave to drugs and expect to function normally in American society.
"These people have all these elixirs that they claim are going to protect a person," he says dismissively of the flushing products. "This seems to be the big issue. People think it's easy to beat a test -- but it's not."
And it shouldn't be, even for the casual user, he contends.
"You can do drugs once a year and that doesn't mean you're not going to cause an accident that day," he said. "Companies should be concerned with anyone who does it."
That's because drug testing has played a significant role in the increase in productivity and reduction of accidents in the U.S. workplace, he says.
The best thing an employer can do to prevent the use of flushes is random testing, he says. "It's unannounced, objective. People will never know when they're going to be subjected -- and unless they want to take all those whacked-out pills and drink 10 gallons a day..."
It all seems a bit too Big Brotherish for Chris, the manager at Swag.
Ever used a radar detector to avoid getting caught for speeding? Well, using a detox product is the same principle, he rationalizes.
"I don't like to condone what they're doing," he says. "I'm not a preacher. But I think it's kind of a violation of somebody's privacy."
Besides selling detox products in the store, Swag also distributes a whole range of NODOPE products by mail order across America.
But what's in there, exactly?
"It's all legal vitamins and herbs," he says. "You could get them in any supermarket or health food store, even in your food."
Pressed for an example, he says, "Well ... licorice root." Cranberry juice is also touted as an effective "cleanser." Herbs, such as golden seal, often have a natural diaeretic nature.
There is no "type" he hasn't seen buy his wares, from "tattooed crazy people to people in business suits." But he reserves the most sympathy for twenty-somethings new to Vegas.
It's a commonplace scenario:
"Let's say they were at a party a few months ago and they smoked something, but they're not 'drug users.' Well, these hair tests can go back three months. Now they're here and need to pay bills, and they're going back into their lives months ago and not giving them a chance."
So he takes them under his wing, noting that he is more familiar with the casinos' testing policies than his customers. He quickly rattles off a few as proof:
"Caesars? Hair test."
"New York-New York? Hair test."
The success rate, he assures, is almost foolproof. "People call here all the time thanking me."
But experts say swallow at your own risk.
"The process is drinking the product with 2 gallons of water," says Younghans. "Some are just a bunch of herbs. You could save yourself the 35 bucks and just drink the water.
"Often, instead of flushing the system, you just end up diluting it. If we get a diluted specimen, we send them back to the employer."
It doesn't always work, agrees Pat Strickland of Consolidated Laboratories. "We have people who come back and I say, 'I drank the tea or the golden seal' and we say, 'Well, I'm sorry'..."
"It's a timing game," says Younghans. "If they don't have it down correctly, they could actually increase the amount of drug in the urine."
As in any battle, Strickland inflicts on his captives a unique form of water torture.
"It's pretty obvious when we see someone who's dying to go the bathroom from drinking lots of liquids," he says. "We'll try to delay as long as possible, claiming paperwork, other customers" -- anything to make them burst their bladder and rue their indiscreet ingestion.
But it's also a game of continual one-upmanship.
"It is discouraging from a personal point of view," says APL's Younghans. "I'm in this business because I believe in it. Just when you think you've got one whupped, they come up with something else."
In response to the newer hair tests of the '90s, there are now oh-so natural-sounding Bio Cleanse or Herbal Cleaning shampoos, made of vitamins, minerals, herbs, roots and even bark, that claim to be able to remove the euphemistic "toxins" from the hair.
Others have their hairdressers bleach and re-color their hair to try to strip it of traces of drug use.
But Bill Thistle, a vice president of Psychemedics, a drug-testing company based in Cambridge, Mass., whose clients include MGM and Harrah's, says the detection test used by his company makes a mere rinse or bleach inadequate.
"To truly cleanse that inner part, you'd have to destroy your hair shaft," he says.
The company's "digestion" method involves dissolving the entire hair into a liquid, then testing it twice to make sure the body has processed the drug, and not just been exposed to it in the air or on a brush.
But, he admits, the detox shampoos and bleaching might be effective on tests that only extract the drug without dissolving the hair. "If you have a strong enough solvent, you could pull the toxins out," he said.
And the makers of products sold on the Internet, such as the Wizard and the Eliminator, claim to have cracked the code on urine testing as well.
After flushing the system with a tidal wave of water, "we add creatinine and electrolytes and B-12 for color to bring the urine levels back to normal," one brags.
"There are some products that do alter the test -- but we can detect those," says Younghans. "We're smart enough to see that it has been adulterated."
How do they do that exactly? Only your hair-tester knows for sure. "I don't want to give away all our secrets," she says coyly.
"We get a lot of calls on our marketing phone line asking, 'How do I beat my drug test?' They don't like my answer -- which is, 'Stop using drugs.'"