Why on Earth Are Almost a Third of High-Schoolers Getting Drug-Tested in America?
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Nearly one in three high school students are exposed to student drug-testing programs. Yet, over a decade of scientific scrutiny of the practice has consistently found that these programs do far more harm than good.
The latest finding appears in the January issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. Investigators from Israel and the United States assessed whether students' awareness of drug-testing programs in their schools was associated with a reduction in the frequency of their use of alcohol, cigarettes or cannabis. It wasn’t.
Authors wrote, "Consistent with previous research, results of the current study show that perceived SDT (student drug testing) is not associated with a reduction in initiation or escalation of substance use in the general student population." They concluded, "The current research reinforces previous conclusions that SDT is a relatively ineffective drug-prevention policy."
Ineffective is putting it mildly. In fact, no peer-reviewed study has ever praised the program as effectual. By contrast, numerous studies, including those sponsored by the US government, have reported that student drug-testing programs fail to deter adolescent substance use, and in some cases may even encourage it.
A 2011 study in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence assessed the impact of school drug-testing programs in a nationally representative sample of 943 high school students. Researchers discovered that the imposition of random drug-screening programs failed to reduce males' self-reported use of alcohol, tobacco or illicit drugs and that the program was equally ineffective among at risk females. Authors concluded: "The current research expands on previous findings indicating that school drug testing does not in and of itself deter substance use. … [D]rug testing should not be undertaken as a stand-alone substance prevention effort.”
A 2010 study by the Department of Education—the same agency that spent over $36 million during the second half of the George W. Bush administration to encourage and subsidize random drug-testing programs in public schools—reported similarly poor outcomes. Its assessment of students at 36 separate high schools reported that federally funded mandatory random student drug-screening programs failed to reduce rates of drug use among either the students exposed to testing or the student body at large. Suspicionless drug testing "had no statistically significant impacts" upon participants' substance use, the study found. "For nonparticipants, there was no significant difference in self-reported substance use between the treatment and control schools," the authors added.
A widely reported 2007 study by researchers at Oregon's Health & Science University found not only that student drug-testing programs don’t reduce self-reported substance abuse, but that the practice may encourage greater risk-taking behaviors among those tested. Researchers reported that students exposed to drug testing were more likely to report an "increase in some risk factors for future substance use" compared to students who attended schools without drug and alcohol testing.
University of Michigan investigators reaffirmed this latter finding in a 2013 study analyzing the impact of student drug-testing programs in some 250,000 high school and middle-school students over a 14-year period. While investigators reported that random drug-testing programs of the student body, as well as programs specifically targeting student athletes, were associated with "moderately lower marijuana use," they cautioned that the programs in gneral were "associated with increased use of illicit drugs other than marijuana."
The likelihood that students subjected to random drug screenings may be more likely to engage in drug substitution hardly comes as a surprise to anyone familiar with marijuana pharmacology. Urinalysis, the most common form of student drug testing, screens for the presence of inert drug metabolites (breakdown products), not the actual parent drug. Because marijuana's primary metabolite, carboxy-THC, is fat soluble, it may be present in urine for days, weeks, or in some cases even months after past use. By contrast, most other illicit drug metabolites, such as those associated with cocaine, are water-soluble and will exit the body within a matter of hours. The University of Michigan researchers speculated that students subjected to drug screens were switching from cannabis to other illicit drugs that possessed shorter detection times.
"Random SDT (student drug testing) among the general high school student population, as well as middle and high school subgroups targeted for testing, was associated with moderately lower marijuana use; however, most forms of testing were associated with moderately higher use of other illicit drugs, particularly in high school," they concluded. "These findings raise the question of whether SDT is worth this apparent tradeoff."
But this particular question had already been raised publicly years earlier. A 2005 paper published by Britain’s Joseph Rowntree Foundation had previously warned of this trend, stating that student drug testing programs may “encourage some pupils to switch from the use of cannabis and other substances that can be traced a relatively long time after use, to drugs that are cleared from the body much more quickly,” including alcohol and more dangerous drugs like cocaine and heroin.
Nonetheless, despite overwhelming evidence pointing to the potential negative unintended consequences associated with student drug-testing programs, and despite a lack of research in support of the practice’s effectiveness as a deterrent, an estimated 28 percent of high-schoolers are now subject some form of student drug testing. They shouldn't be.