Prison drug use 'could escape detection'

Drug use in Northern Ireland's prisons could go undetected if a controversial new test is introduced, a senior officer - who helps run the drug testing unit at Maghaberry - has warned.
 
UTV has obtained emails sent by the officer, in which he claims the new test for cannabis - the main drug used in local jails - has little or no chance of working sufficiently.
 
Prison chiefs have just trialled what is supposed to be a new way of detecting the Class B drug by testing saliva - but alarm bells were ringing before the three-month pilot even got underway.
 
In one email, the prison officer recalls a conversation with officers from the forensic science service.
 
"These officers had informed me the devices in question have a limit of four hours in which cannabis may be detected, this may be stretched to eight hours for a habitual heavy user," he said.
 
"This leaves us with the problem that, unless prisoners are staying up all night to smoke cannabis, we will be using a detection system that has little or no chance to detect the main drug of choice used by prisoners."
 
The supplier of the testing kits confirmed the detection window of four to eight hours and eight to twelve hours for a heavy user to UTV - significantly less than the four week period of detection possible with standard urine tests.
 
In the emails, the senior officer also says that, if saliva testing is introduced, it could leave the service open to criticism from Prison Ombudsman Pauline McCabe and the Coroner.
 
"This would leave us open to awkward questions... Why we would choose such a device when cannabis has played an important part in recent high-profile related deaths in custody," an email read.
 
"If asked for my advice, I would suggest very strongly that we keep urine as the primary means of drug testing."
 
Introducing saliva testing as the new way to detect drugs is not a done deal. The pilot scheme only concluded last month and is still being evaluated - but it seems prison chiefs will have a battle on their hands if they give it the go-ahead.