Irish firm at cutting edge of clampdown on designer drugs

An Antrim firm’s pioneering new tests for legal highs may prove useful to commercial organisations

Drug testing kit: research suggests that cannabis is the most commonly taken illegal drug but new evidence points to the growing popularity of legal highs or so-called designer drugs which mimic the effects of Class A drugs

Drug testing kit: research suggests that cannabis is the most commonly taken illegal drug but new evidence points to the growing popularity of legal highs or so-called designer drugs which mimic the effects of Class A drugs


Look at the person in the cubicle or desk next to you. Is there any way you could tell simply by looking at them if they may have taken an illicit or designer drug before coming to work this morning?

What about when they come back from their break or after lunch? Chances are, unless something goes badly wrong – and normally it is only identified after the event – you will never know if the person sitting next to you at work is taking drugs.

Drug use in the workplace can be very hard to identify and thanks to the growing popularity of “legal highs” it is becoming an increasingly complex and worrying issue for employers.

Under current UK legislation employees can only be tested for drugs with their consent. In Ireland companies may be permitted to carry out a drugs or alcohol test if employees signed up to the practice when they joined the organisation or if they have given their consent to be tested.

Last year an Oireachtas report warned that the misuse of alcohol and other drugs was costing the Irish economy billions of euros and was one of the biggest challenges facing society today. But how big a problem is drug abuse alone in the workplace in 2013?

In the UK official government figures suggest that one in six people between the ages of 16-24 takes drugs regularly. According to the UK Home Office about one third of adults aged 16-59 have taken an illicit drug at some stage in their lifetime.

Its research suggests that cannabis is the most commonly taken illegal drug.

But there is new evidence that highlights the increasing popularity of legal highs or so-called designer drugs which mimic the effects of Class A drugs.

The big challenge for both commercial organisations and law enforcement agencies is how to identify this new generation of designer drugs in tests?

One Northern Ireland company may have the answer; it is pioneering new tests for legal highs. Co Antrim-based Randox Laboratories is an international clinical diagnostics company which over the last two decades has developed a suite of high-tech products that provide more accurate and rapid diagnoses for countless diseases and health complaints.

Two years ago it established a forensics-focused spin-off business, Randox Toxicology, that uses its parent company’s biochip array technology (Bat) to identify substances across a wide range of drug families.

Rick Bell, global business manager with Randox Toxicology, said the company is now at the forefront of the fight against designer drugs. “The availability of these substances, both on high streets and online, is of serious concern given their effect can be as potent as traditional drugs and in some cases as lethal.

“Mainstream science needs to work hard to keep pace with clandestine drug labs, and from our research and manufacturing plant in Crumlin we are able to produce reliable screening tests quickly, accurately and at an affordable price point for forensic laboratories,” Mr Bell said.

According to Randox one of the advantages of the Bat lies with the speed and number of different designer drugs it can detect. This is because the tests developed by the Antrim firm can pinpoint not just one but a range of potential compounds.

What this means in practice is that Randox can potentially detect at least 110 drugs from just one patient sample – the company’s largest analysers are capable of delivering almost 10,000 results per hour.

Track record
Law enforcement agencies across the globe have embraced the technology developed in Northern Ireland, but business organisations also have been quick to realise the advantages of the devices in testing for drug abuse in the workplace.

Randox has an established track record in providing drug-testing services to safety-critical industries such as the aviation and construction sectors.

But growing commercial demand for its range of drug-testing services and products may signal that other industries are also keen to adopt a “preventative approach” to drug abuse.

Last month Randox took part in the European Workplace Drug Testing Society Conference in Vienna, which brings together key industry players.

According to Gary McCutcheon, Randox testing services operations manager, its research shows that when companies apply a random testing policy it has a major impact on the number of employees testing positive.

McCutcheon said one case study showed that a client company who introduced random testing went from a high point of 66 per cent of employees testing positive to 16 per cent in just two years.

“The stats also show waves of a deterrent effect. Over months after temporary spikes of positive results, when disciplinary procedures engage including dismissals, we can spot relatively linear drops in people testing positive.

“From this we can deduce word clearly spreads throughout workforces that those taking drugs will be caught and, if appropriate, dismissed,” he said.

According to McCutcheon although only some industries currently require random testing by law Randox believes the practice would deliver benefits across all industries and sectors.

“With awareness of corporate manslaughter increasing amongst employers, we expect a preventative approach to drug abuse to become more widespread. The principal benefit is obvious – everyone is safer at work,” he said.

From Hong Kong to Canada
Randox’s client spread
Randox Toxicology currently works with law enforcement agencies from India to Canada and from Hong Kong to Mexico. Its key market is North American but law enforcement officers right across the US, middle east and Europe are using its drug test kits. Expanding into the area of law enforcement has proved lucrative for Randox and turnover is likely to exceed £5.5 million this year.

It claims to have one of the largest toxicology test menus in the world and is able to offer a range of drug-testing methods from urine testing to hair and oral fluid testing.

In the past drugs screening would have involved one drug test for each suspected drug. However, Randox’s technology means that instead of a sample being divided to test for each type of drug, it is now possible for a sample to be analysed for a range of drugs at one time.

Next year the Antrim firm intends to launch technology suitable for what it describes as “front-line screening” in police stations which will deliver lab-quality results in 10 minutes.

This could potentially reduce the need to bail suspects pending charges while awaiting results.