Kenneth Curtis is the kind of creative, can-do American entrepreneur that made this country what it is today. He saw a need, created a product, built a business. But now Big Government is on his back. The politicians just don't like what he's selling.
Which is urine. His own.
Curtis's urine is pure. It's natural. It's organic. It's composed of 100 percent recycled materials. And most important to his customers, it's guaranteed drug-free.
"I live a clean life," he says, "and I supply all the urine."
For $69, plus postage, Curtis sells five ounces of his urine in a little plastic bag, along with 30 inches of plastic tubing and a tiny heat pack designed to keep his fluid at body temperature. Taped to the body, this "urine test substitution kit" enables Curtis's customers to pass off his urine for their own during workplace drug tests.
"I've never had a customer fail a test," he says. "I'm very proud of that."
Curtis, 40, was a pipe fitter in Greenville, S.C., when he started his urine business four years ago. Every time he signed on with a new construction contractor, he had to take a drug test. He always passed--he doesn't use drugs--but the testing irked him. He considered it an unconstitutional violation of his privacy.
"I was being tested a dozen times a year," he says. "I found it very invasive."
So he decided to fight back. He developed his kit and founded a company, Privacy Protection Services, to sell it. He set up a Web site that advertises his, um, product, with a patriotic appeal, complete with waving American flags and an essay on the Fourth Amendment. He's not selling urine, his site proclaims, he's selling privacy, freedom and the American Way of Life. He has sold thousands of the kits, he claims, although he won't say how many thousands.
"Suffice it to say, I don't have to work as a pipe fitter anymore," he says.
Last spring, irate that Curtis's kit could foil drug tests, South Carolina state Sen. David Thomas drafted a bill to ban the sale of urine. The bill carried a penalty of five years in prison for selling urine--or even giving it away--with the intention of defrauding a drug test. Texas, Nebraska and Pennsylvania had already enacted similar bans.
"A business owner has the right to know that the employees working for him are drug-free," Thomas says.
At a hearing on the bill, Curtis was berated by angry legislators. "You typify what's worst about this country," said one representative.
"Everybody else is trying to clean up drugs," said another, "and you're trying to put more in society."
"No sir," Curtis replied. "I'm selling urine, not drugs. Urine has been around a long time."
The bill became law in June. To test it, Curtis walked into the Greenville police headquarters and ceremoniously presented one of his urine kits to a sheriff's deputy. The cops huddled with a lawyer and then decided not to arrest Curtis, claiming that his publicity stunt didn't violate the law because the deputy who received the urine had no intention of defrauding a drug test.
"I'm still in business," Curtis says.
The bizarre brouhaha over Curtis's precious bodily fluids is the latest skirmish in a long war between the drug-testing industry and a gaggle of underground entrepreneurs who sell products designed to foil the tests: pills, potions, powders, shampoos and packets of freeze-dried urine, among other odd items.
"It's very much a cat-and-mouse game," says Tom Johnson, a spokesman for SmithKline Beecham, one of the country's largest drug-testing companies. "They come up with something to circumvent the process and the [drug-testing] companies do something to detect it. We always like to think that we're ahead."
"They detect it and we move on," says Matt Stevens, marketing director for Spectrum Labs, which sells "Urine Luck," an additive that allegedly fools the tests. "Beating the labs is like fighting the federal government--they're so big and slow. . . . They can't detect the current formula."
This cat-and-mouse game began with the rise of workplace drug testing in the 1980s. In 1982, the U.S. military instituted the first large drug-testing program after an accident aboard the USS Nimitz revealed widespread drug use on the aircraft carrier. The testing spread to other government agencies and then, by law, to companies contracting with the government.
Early drug-testing programs tended to affect workers in safety-sensitive jobs--pilots, bus drivers, train engineers--but the practice soon spread to include bookkeepers, burger flippers, blackjack dealers and ballplayers. Today, 196 of the nation's 200 largest companies use some form of workplace drug testing and nearly half of full-time workers have been tested at least once. Most tests are designed to detect traces of marijuana, opiates, amphetamines, cocaine and barbiturates.
Meanwhile, drug testing in public schools has increased since last October, when the Supreme Court upheld an Indiana law permitting schools to require drug testing for students who participate in extracurricular activities. In Cave City, Ark., for example, students who want to go on field trips or attend the school prom must pass drug tests.
As testing increased, so did the demand for products designed to help America's estimated 14 million current drug users--most of them marijuana smokers--to beat the tests. "It's a burgeoning industry," says Rick Cusick, "because the drug-testing industry is burgeoning."
Cusick ought to know. He's an advertising salesman for High Times, a glossy pro-marijuana magazine that is thick with ads for test-foiling products. The latest issue carries more than 10 pages of ads for such "detoxifying" drinks as "Ready Clean" and "XXtra Clean" and an herbal tea called "Quick Flush," as well as shampoos designed to fool drug tests done on hair samples.
One of the ads carries a celebrity endorsement. Tommy Chong--half of the comedy team of Cheech and Chong that cavorted through several goofy marijuana movies in the '70s--endorses "Urine Luck" products. In the two-page ad, he is shown standing with his back to the camera and his pants around his ankles, producing a sample under the malevolent gaze of a beautiful blonde. "Hey, man," the copy reads, "when you get caught with your pants down . . . Urine Luck!"
"I was approached because of my name and my association with pot," Chong says. "It's good old American publicity."
Competing companies also contacted him, Chong claims, but only Urine Luck offered what he wanted--money. "It made me interested in the business," he says.
But not interested enough to actually test the product on his own urine, which he readily admits is constantly contaminated with marijuana residues. "No, I haven't done that personally," he admits. But, he adds, "all of these products, as far as I know, work."
That's doubtful, says Mark de Bernardo, executive director of the Institute for a Drug-Free Workplace, a pro-testing lobbying group. "These schemes and scams are much more likely to fail than to succeed," he says. "The science of drug-testing has advanced significantly. In the United States in 1999, it's hard to beat a drug test."
"I think these products are useless," says John P. Morgan, a professor of pharmacology at the City University of New York Medical School and a member of the board of the pro-pot National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws Foundation. "People are trying every day to stay ahead of the urine testers but they're not succeeding."
Morgan has been watching the war between the testers and the test-spoilers since the early '80s. First, he says, there were herbal potions designed to be ingested with large quantities of water in order to dilute the urine so that drug residues would not appear in sufficient quantities to be detected. That worked for a while, but then drug labs began rejecting samples that were too diluted. Then came chemical additives that masked the presence of drug residues. These also worked for a while, Morgan says, but then the labs began to test for them, too.
And that created a demand for urine--good, clean, wholesome, drug-free urine.
"I know a guy who collected it from a child," Morgan says. "I know a guy who collected it from a dog. And a guy in Texas who claimed he collected it from a Bible study group--but I think that was a joke."
Some companies sell freeze-dried urine--the customer just adds hot water. And Innovative Research Technology sells a device called "The Urinator," which dispenses artificial urine. "It's made in a laboratory," says company spokesman Mike Smith, "to ensure that it's not a biohazard."
Drug-testing companies responded to the urine vendors by immediately checking the temperature of all urine samples: If they aren't around 98.6 degrees, they're rejected. So the urine vendors responded with devices designed to keep their products warm. The Urinator comes with an electronic heating device. Kenneth Curtis's kit includes a chemical warming device similar to the hand-warming packs used by hunters--as well as a thermometer for testing the sample before turning it in.
Curtis's kit works, which really irks Sen. Thomas. "Urine testing is easily fooled by what this man is doing," he says. "Their technology is beating our technology right now."
Meanwhile, Curtis is having a high time, selling his liquid wastes and appearing on countless TV and radio shows. "I get a great deal of satisfaction out of this job," Curtis says. "I'm helping people to protect their privacy. The politicians have declared war on the people under the guise of the war on drugs. This is a guerrilla tactic to fight back. You fight against tyranny by any means necessary."
He expects to be arrested but says he's not worried. "They can't do anything to me that hasn't been done to better patriots."
Until then, he continues to void his bladder into what he calls a "refrigerated receptacle."
"I freeze it all," he says. "I don't waste any of my assets. It's literally liquid gold."
CAPTION: An ad in High Times sells "detoxifying products" that compete with Curtis's own, um, product.
CAPTION: "I've never had a customer fail a test," Kenneth Curtis says.
CAPTION: Tommy Chong, of Cheech and Chong fame, endorses "Urine Luck," which advertises in High Times magazine.