Riding the bus from her Lake View apartment to downtown Chicago, Adele (not her real name) carried a jar of fake pee between her breasts. A few days earlier, a client had requested that all the consultants working on their account at Adele’s firm be drug-tested. Now she was commuting to a urinalysis clinic two days after smoking weed.
In the clinic bathroom, she retrieved the synthetic pee from her bra, ready to pour it into the provided cup. But there was a problem: During the 30-minute ride, the warmth from her cleavage had overheated the sample. The bottle came with a thermometer on the side, indicating the range for average urine temperature; hers was so hot it didn’t even register on the gauge.
“I was a little nervous and I was sweating because I have this hot fake urine in my tits,” she tells me. “So I had to sit there and pretend I was pee-shy for a couple minutes until it cooled down.”
When the temperature finally lowered back to 98 degrees, she transferred the pee to the cup and handed it in. She passed.
This was Adele’s second time using a product from Quick Fix Synthetic, a company that sells fake urine. In fact, the imitation pee market is quite saturated with legitimate companies with names like UPass, Clean Stream, Whizzinator, Xstream, and Monkey Whizz.
The existence of these companies is a marker of this particular moment in drug policy. Widespread workplace drug testing started in the “Just Say No” era of the late ’80s. Today, 56 percent of employers require pre-employment drug testing, according to one estimate. At the same time, marijuana policy is slowly moving toward legalization, so workers who are drug-tested and use drugs are in a bind — and many look to the ethically and legally questionable synthetic urine market to fix it.
What exactly is fake urine and how does it work?
In 1828, chemist Friedrich Wöhler created the first sample of synthetic urea, a chemical compound found in urine. He did so accidentally while attempting to synthesize ammonium cyanate.
Little did he know it would be one of the first discoveries to contradict vitalism, a popular scientific theory of the time, which stated that organic compounds could not be created in a lab, only isolated in their natural form. Vitalists would believe that nothing besides kidneys could produce urea. Wöhler’s discovery was one of the preliminary findings to disprove this entire theory as he was able to create urea inorganically.
Fast-forward to the present, and the words “synthetic urine” don’t sound like groundbreaking chemistry, but more like a gag gift.
When Adele first heard about Quick Fix Synthetic from a friend who was nervous about passing a drug test, she didn’t put any thought into the product’s legitimacy. “Honestly, I was kind of dismissive of it,” she says. “I was like ‘I don’t know, I don’t care, get off drugs,’ which is very hypocritical of me now.” While she used marijuana herself, it was only when she started to get tested more regularly at her job that she became more curious about whether synthetic pee was effective.
Quick Fix Synthetic urine, along with its competitors, is made from a mix of water, urea, creatinine, pH balance, and/or uric acid. Synthetic urine can have the same density as urine too, as labs also test for this.
Urinalysis clinics use a method called gas chromatography-mass spectrometry to test urine. Gas chromatography is used to separate and identify compounds in a mixture, then determine their purity, and mass spectrometry is used to measure a sample’s mass. Together they help identify what compounds are in a mixture. Most companies use five-panel drug testing, meaning they look for traces of THC, opioids, PCP, cocaine, and amphetamines.
They also analyze urine color, odor, and temperature. This means that when you purchase synthetic urine to pass a drug test, your job is twofold: 1) smuggling it into the bathroom, and 2) ensuring it’s the right temperature. Adele’s Quick Fix came with a heating pad, so after you microwave your mixture, all you have to do is shake the heating pad and tie around the bottle to keep it warm. If your fake pee has the same pure compounds and density as actual urine, testing companies may not detect it is a fake sample.
The foggy ethics around drug testing
Workplace drug testing proliferated in 1986 when President Ronald Reagan started to require testing of all federal employees. This same year he signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act which established mandatory minimum prison sentences for certain drug offenses, including marijuana possession.
The legislation was later viewed as racist, as data showed that people of color were targeted based on suspicion of drug use more than white people (according to the ACLU, black people are four times more likely to be arrested for pot possession than white people).
There was also a significant disparity between the minimum jail time required of those who smoked crack and those who did cocaine in powder form. Crack users, 80 percent of whom were black, got much more jail time than those who used cocaine powder, most of whom were white. This filled jails disproportionately with nonviolent, black drug offenders.
When Reagan started his drug testing plan, many courts ruled the practice unconstitutional. A New Orleans judge went as far as to call it a “warrantless search” made in the “total absence of probable cause or even reasonable suspicion.’’ Nevertheless, drug testing proliferated. In 1987, the American Management Association found that only 21 percent of employers surveyed were drug testing. By 1996, that number was 81 percent, but by 2004 it was down to 62 percent; there is no more recent data available.
Today, the conversation about the existence and effectiveness of drug testing continues, as both marijuana inches toward full legalization and the country is devastated by an opioid crisis. According to a 2017 New York Times article about how drug testing affects the economy, about half of the applicants at the Columbiana Boiler factory in Youngstown, Ohio, failed their drug test.
At Warren Fabricating & Machining factory in Hubbard, Ohio, co-owner Regina Mitchell says four out of 10 applicants fail her required drug test, half of whom test positive for marijuana, with opiates and other drugs accounting for the remainder. Because the business provides health insurance, she said, drug tests can be a way to avoid future medical costs. When one of her employee’s family members gave birth to a baby addicted to opioids, the company paid $300,000 for three months of treatment in a neonatal intensive care unit.
“Imagine the money we could save or invest as a company if I were able to hire drug-free workers on the spot,” Mitchell told the New York Times. “But that’s just not the environment we are in.”
But some argue that because drug testing, especially for marijuana, is a relic of the war on drugs, it should no longer be practiced. Add to that a 2014 academic review, which examined 23 studies on whether drug testing diminished drug use along with accident or injury rates, finding that drug testing does not significantly improve workplace safety (aside from one study that found that random alcohol testing reduced fatal accidents in the transport industry).
In researcher Michael Frone’s book Alcohol and Illicit Drug Use in the Workforce and Workplace, Frone says that drug testing doesn’t ward off heavy drug users, it just discourages casual drug users from applying to jobs that require drug tests.
How the legality, or lack thereof, informs the marketing of fake pee
Just like the legality of weed, the legality of fake urine varies from state to state. Eighteen states have outlawed the manufacturing, delivery, use, or sale of synthetic urine to falsify drug tests, but of those, only one state, South Carolina, has ever prosecuted a urine seller, and only twice. In each of those cases, the seller was accused of marketing fake urine for the explicit purpose of passing a drug test. Illinois and Kentucky have made the sale of urine punishable as a felony, and North Carolina and South Carolina have made it punishable as a felony on a second offense. In all other states, the sale or use of fake urine is a misdemeanor.
Companies that manufacture and sell urine are able to operate as legal businesses by claiming that their product isn’t meant to be used to falsify drug tests. A similar tactic is used with some other drugs and drug paraphernalia: Glass pipes are often sold “for tobacco consumption” but largely used with marijuana; alkyl nitrites, also known as poppers, are sold as room deodorizers but typically used as a recreational inhalant.
Quick Fix simply tags on a line at the end of its product description that says “This product is to be used in accordance with all local state and federal laws and is not to be used for lawful administered drug tests.” Meanwhile, their testimonial page implies that people use the product to pass drug tests (“Got the job!” says Vanessa from California). QuickFix did not respond to a request for comment.
Other brands are more creative. Frank Avalos is the general manager of Alternative Lifestyle Systems, a company that manufactures and sells fake urine. Avalos claims ALS products are not created for drug tests. Instead, he says, these are fetish products for those who want to have what is known as “wet sex,” or sex involving peeing on your partner.
The Whizzinator Touch, for example, comes with a prosthetic penis (available in six skin tones) and leg straps and waistband to keep the prosthetic in place, as well as a plastic bag “bladder,” one syringe, four heating pads, and, a fake urine formula named Golden Shower Synthetic Urine (this formula is actually a powder of dehydrated fake urine that one must mix with water). It sells for $129.95.
Then there is the Whizz Kit, also known as the Female Whizzinator. This is a refillable pouch and tube system that comes with a fake urine sample and two heating pads. According to Avalos, you fasten the urine-filled pouch to your lower back using a belt, then wire the connected tube between your butt cheeks so the opening of the tube falls around where your urethra is, giving the impression that you are peeing on your partner. The Whizz Kit is quite a bit cheaper, ringing in at $49.95.
“There is an adult side of the product,” Avalos says. “That’s the main reason we wanted to keep the industry alive.”
Avalos says that “by the numbers” the refills of synthetic urine, not the prosthetic or kits, are ALS’s best sellers. Once people have the device, he explains, they need to buy refills, so the disparity in sales makes sense. He also tells me that ALS’s main distributors are smoke shops and head shops, which are stores that sell paraphernalia related to consuming tobacco and cannabis, but typically not sexual aids.
Quick Fix’s refills in fluid form sell for $39.95 — Adele says that with shipping, she paid about $50 total. According to Avalos, Whizzinator sales have grown 10 percent year over year.
The Whizzinator goes to Congress
If the Whizzinator sounds familiar at all, you may be remembering its unlikely brush with stardom after being found in former NFL player Onterrio Smith’s luggage back in 2005. The league requires players to take regular drug tests, and Smith already had two substance abuse violations against him; a third would have earned him a one-year suspension. He claimed the device was for his cousin (being caught with drug test falsifying equipment isn’t against NFL rules, using it is), and he wasn’t dealt another violation. Less than a month later, he failed a drug test and was released from the Minnesota Vikings.
Suddenly the Whizzinator was featured on every major sports network (four years later Smith’s was even auctioned off and bought by a sports memorabilia bar owner in Minnesota).
Just four days after the contents of Smith’s luggage were making headlines, the Whizzinator found itself at the center of a congressional hearing about the subversion of drug testing. Although the hearing was about the general use of fake pee, the Whizzinator itself was mentioned 20 times. It seems that Smith’s incident gave the Whizzinator name recognition and Congress a culprit. Before being found in Smith’s luggage, the product seemed ridiculous and dismissable, but now there was high-profile proof that people were actually purchasing it and using it to cheat drug tests.
During the hearing, those who use fake urine were painted as a population unfit to work. Then-chair of the Committee of Energy and Commerce Joe Barton said that while the name was undeniably funny, the harm it was causing wasn’t. “It isn’t very funny when the truck driver bearing down on you from behind is the guy who used a Whizzinator to falsify his test result,” he said. “It is not a joke if an air traffic controller guiding your pilot is impaired from drug use that was masked by these products. It is not a joke if a homeland security worker is living positive and testing negative as he screens for terrorists.”
At the end of the hearing, three purveyors of fake pee were called forward to testify. All pleaded their Fifth Amendment rights. The Whizzinator was owned by Puck Technology at the time; three years later, co-owners of Puck Technology Dennis Catalano and Gerald Wills were charged with defrauding the US government for helping falsify drug test results.
In 2010, Wills, who was also the patent holder of the Whizzinator, was sentenced to six months in prison and three years probation. Catalano got three years probation. That same year, ALS bought the trademark to the Whizzinator. And just like that, with some unusual marketing tactics, the Whizzinator remained on shelves.
Though for how long is yet to be determined. During this period of incremental legalization of marijuana, it makes sense that fake urine has become a hot commodity — but one can imagine that full legalization might just cause demand to dry up.
Want more stories from The Goods by Vox? Sign up for our newsletter here.