Random Testing, Disappointing Results

Bush credits recent declines in illegal drug use among teenagers to random drug testing, but research tells a different story.
Today Fresno hosts the second of four Office of National Drug Control Policy-sponsored summits on student drug testing.

In January, in his State of the Union address, President Bush credited recent declines in illegal drug use among teenagers to random drug testing. He then proposed $23 million go to schools opting to use what national drug czar John Walters touts a "silver bullet" and Mayor Alan Autry has vigorously supported.

I will be in Fresno for the summit today, along with other parents, because I hope there will be room in these gatherings for real discussion, even debate, about this well-meaning but wrongheaded approach to drug abuse prevention. As a research scientist and drug educator, I believe 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 (www.monitoringthefuture.org) that showed declines in illegal drug use this year also compared 76,000 students in 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 at this point only 5 percent of American schools use drug testing, 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 3-6 p.m.

Sitting on the sidelines

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. As in Fresno, 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.

Quite a bill

School administrators in Dublin, Ohio, for example, 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.

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 also is director of the Safety First project of the Drug Policy Alliance in San Francisco.

This story originally appeared in the Fresno Bee.