For a few days in July, the small town of Hugo, Colorado was the butt of the nation’s jokes when it came to legalized marijuana.
The town issued a water advisory advising people not to drink the water or even cook with it after samples from the town’s wells tested positive on field tests for THC, the psychoactive chemical in marijuana. Days later, laboratory tests confirmed the water was safe to drink and the original tests were false positives.
In the days following the revelation, the sheriff’s office said the original false positive tests originated with the Lincoln County Department of Human Services. That agency provides a lot of services for the county, like child welfare services and food assistance, but testing the county’s water supply is not one of them. When Human Services failed for days to answer questions about the situation, Denver7 Investigates submitted requests under the Colorado Open Records Act, seeking answers to some very basic questions:
- Why was DHS testing Hugo’s water in the first place?
- How does the department use the field drug tests that created the water scare in its everyday business?
- Have any of those drug tests resulted in consequences for families who are under the department’s supervision?
In the months since Denver7 Investigates requested those records, the department has answered two of those questions but left the third unanswered.
Why was DHS testing Hugo’s water in the first place?
Patricia Phillips, director of Lincoln County’s Department of Human Services, says the whole saga began due to a caseworker’s confusion over how to read the field test kits.
The department’s records show caseworkers use two kinds of field screening tests which test saliva for numerous drugs including marijuana and amphetamines.
The tests resemble a pregnancy test in that the result is indicated by lines on a result strip. In the case of the drug screening tests, two lines indicate a negative result. Like pregnancy tests, the second line can be extremely faint – raising confusion about the result.
“The caseworker wanted to see what a true negative looks like, so [she] thought if she tested tap water, it would show her what a true negative looked like. What we weren't expecting was that it would come up with a false positive for THC,” Phillips explained.
Phillips says it’s clear the strips are made to test saliva and not water, and in retrospect she says it was a mistake to test the water at all. At the time, the department was concerned enough about the test results that they contacted the town’s public works department.
That led to further testing about two weeks later, again with saliva field tests, of raw water from the town’s wells. When only one well tested positive for THC several times, and officials found signs of tampering at the well’s site, they issued the water advisory that prompted national headlines – before confirming the results with any laboratory testing.
“We told the water management guy several times that our testing was just screening and that it should be followed up by lab testing, so I was a bit surprised that it was taken so far so quickly,” Phillips says.
The headlines out of Hugo were met with instant skepticism from those in the marijuana industry, who said THC is, for the most part, not water-soluble.
Denver7’s call to public works was not returned.
Lincoln County records show the episode cost county taxpayers about $4500, including:
- $3745 for a tanker truck full of water from Colorado Springs
- $386 for bottled water purchased locally
- $205 for food for volunteers
How does the department use the field drug tests in its everyday business?
Patricia Phillips says DHS uses the tests to screen families referred to the department due to allegations of child abuse or neglect.
“We use these tests during assessments. We also use them during cases when a family is on a treatment plan and there's identified substance abuse issues,” Phillips says.
“Before the test, [caseworkers] sit down and talk to them and say ‘Would you be willing to do this test? Is this test going to come up positive for any substance?’ And we've had many people say ‘Yes it is going to, and this is what it's going to be positive for,” Phillips explains. “If they do not agree with the results, we usually do another test … If the testing comes back with the same results, we ask them if they'd be willing to do a hair test to verify the results.”
When asked how many parents have failed drug screening test by the department over the past year, Phillips gave a “ballpark” estimate of 50 to 60.
Phillips said her department has not reconsidered its use of the tests in the wake of the water scare.
“I think that would be based on the premise that the testing kits, there's something wrong with them. We don't believe in that premise. We believe that there might've been something in the water that caused the false positive. But we don't believe that the testing is inaccurate. The reason we don't believe the tests are inaccurate is because we have verified the testing over time numerous times through client admission or follow-up lab results,” Phillips said.
She told Denver7 Investigates the department has never had a lab result contradict the result of a screening test.
Have any of the field tests resulted in consequences for families who are under the department’s supervision?
In late July, Denver7 Investigates submitted an open records request to Lincoln County requesting all drug test results (using the field tests involved in the water scare) that resulted in any kind of consequence for the family involved, such as removing a child from a home, in 2016.
The department wrote in response that its staff reviewed all client files and “did not find any instances where a client tested positive for THC and had a negative consequence.”
When pressed on whether a client tested positive for any other drug on the multi-substance screen tests resulting in a negative consequence, the department refuses to release any records, writing, “I understand that you have said we could redact identifying information, but we are a very small county and individuals could be identified just based on situation.”
During an interview with Denver7’s chief investigative reporter Tony Kovaleski, Phillips said the answer to that question is confidential.
“We're not asking for names or social security numbers or addresses or zip codes of where they're from. We're just trying to clarify that if whether this test kit has positive results, that in fact that has consequences,” Kovaleski asked.
“I understand that,” Phillips responded.
“Can you answer the question?” Kovaleski asked.
“No, I can't,” Phillips said. “I think that you have some concern that people may be testing falsely for drugs, so I understand. I just don't think that there's a need to be concerned.”
Phillips told Denver7 Investigates in an email that decisions are not made on field tests alone, while again refusing to release any test results:
“Most times the client admits their use either before a screen is administered or after a positive result is obtained. We never use a screen test alone to make decisions such as removal, filing a court case, or termination of parental rights. It is always followed up with testing confirmed by a lab.”
Phillips said such lab testing has a turn-around time of about four weeks.
Lincoln County officials are preparing an after-action report about the water scare in Hugo. The health department told Denver7 Investigates the report will likely be complete in November.