Pubdate: Fri,  6 Feb 2004
Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
Copyright: 2004 Hearst Communications Inc.
Bookmark: (Youth)
Bookmark: (Drug Testing)


Student Drug Testing No Silver Bullet

President Bush's State of the Union message last month had little to say 
about the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Not that his 
speech didn't include unsubstantiated claims and wrongheaded policy; it's 
just that this year, some of them were aimed at schoolchildren in the 
latest effort to get them to "just say no" to illegal drugs.

Citing recent declines in illegal drug use among teenagers, Bush credited 
random drug testing. He then proposed $23 million for schools opting to use 
what federal drug czar John Walters touts as a "silver bullet." Following 
the president's address, Rep. John Peterson, R-Pa., introduced a bill that 
would provide grants, under the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities 
Act, to schools that randomly test students for drugs.

These proposals are based on false premises and hollow promises. Research 
and experience tell us instead that:

- -- Random drug testing does not deter drug use. The same large survey Bush 
cited ( that showed declines in illegal drug 
use this year also compared schools with and without drug testing. It 
turned out there was no difference in illegal drug use among students from 
both sets of schools. Because only 5 percent of American schools use drug 
testing (according to a study in the Journal of School Health), Bush's 
crediting these programs for reductions is a big leap of faith.

- -- Random drug testing alienates students. Students must be observed (by a 
teacher or other adult) as they urinate to be sure the sample is their own. 
The collection of a specimen is a humiliating violation of privacy, 
especially embarrassing for an adolescent. Testing can have the 
unanticipated effect of keeping students from participating in 
after-school, extracurricular programs -- activities that would fill their 
time during the peak teenage drug-using hours of 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. A student 
in Tulia, Texas, summed it up: "I know lots of kids who don't want to get 
into sports ... because they don't want to get drug tested. That's one of 
the reasons I'm not into any [activity]. I'm on medication, so I would 
always test positive, and then they would have to ask me about my 
medication, and I would be embarrassed. And what if I'm on my period? I 
would be too embarrassed."

- -- Drug testing is expensive and inefficient. School districts across the 
country are in financial crisis. The millions of dollars proposed for 
random drug testing could be used more wisely, having a real rather than 
symbolic impact on high school drug abuse. School administrators in Dublin, 
Ohio, calculated that their $35,000 per year drug-testing program was not 
cost-efficient. Of 1,473 students tested, at $24 each, 11 tested positive, 
for a total cost of $3,200 per "positive" student. They canceled the 
program, and with the savings were able to hire a full-time counselor and 
provide prevention programs that reached all 3,581 students.

- -- Testing is not the best way to detect problems with alcohol and other 
drugs. Though it may provide a false sense of security among school 
officials and parents, who believe it tells which students abuse drugs, in 
fact testing detects only a tiny fraction of users, many of them without 
problems, and misses too many who are in trouble. If we are truly intent on 
helping students, we should listen to drug-abuse professionals who know 
that detection of problems requires careful attention to signs such as 
truancy, erratic behavior and falling grades.

Some will argue that students need drug testing to help them say "no." But 
in 2003, the "State of Our Nation's Youth" survey found that, contrary to 
popular belief, most teens are not pressured to use drugs. The same survey 
found, much to the surprise of many parents, that 75 percent of teenagers 
actually enjoy spending time with their parents, and feel they have a good 
relationship with them.

Indeed, these relationships built on trust with parents, teachers and other 
caring adults account for the well-being of teenagers. Drug testing 
actually has the effect of undermining parental influence, forcing adults 
to say, in essence, "I don't trust you," to teenagers.

As young adults, teenagers need to know we expect them to learn how to take 
responsibility for their health. They need science-based drug education, 
counseling and support. If they don't learn to make wise decisions about 
alcohol and other drugs in high school, how will they enter the post-high 
school world as responsible adults?

Random drug testing may seem a panacea, but it is fraught with social, 
emotional and financial problems. Before we leap into a program that uses 
students as guinea pigs, we should examine the many repercussions, pitfalls 
and alternatives to random drug testing.

Marsha Rosenbaum is a medical sociologist and mother of two young adults 
who directs the Safety First project ( of the Drug Policy 
Alliance in San Francisco (
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom