The mother in Boulder, Colo., had been down this road with one child and swore she would never make a return trip. When she became suspicious her youngest son was trying drugs, she went to Walgreens, plunked down $38 for a home drug-test kit and told him to pee in a cup.
The high school junior was furious. And busted.
"Don't you trust me?" he wailed.
His mother would not budge.
Finally, reluctantly, the 16-year-old, whose name is not being used to protect his privacy, confessed: The reason he didn't want to take the test was that it would be positive.
His mother thanked him for his honesty and gave him 30 days to clean up his act. There would be another test when he least expected it. A month later, she sent him back to the bathroom, cup in hand. He passed.
In the year since, she hasn't tested him again. But that doesn't mean she won't. She keeps a test in the house, just in case.
What makes this mother's private act of parental vigilance so extraordinary is not that she and tens of thousands of other parents have bought into the multimillion-dollar industry of home drug testing.
It's that parents do so despite warnings from most major drug-abuse and treatment professionals, the nation's medical establishment, parenting experts and even the White House. All call home-testing of teens a bad idea.
"I guess home testing is better than no testing," said a skeptical Bertha Madras, the White House's deputy drug czar.
But her Office of National Drug Control Policy does not encourage parents to take matters into their own hands. Instead, the Bush administration backs random school drug testing, arguing schools are better equipped to help with counseling and referrals if a problem is found.
"By the time a parent tests, it's already far down the road," Madras said. "If they get a positive result, then what? Parents may or may not have the skill to proceed."
In March, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement opposing both home drug testing and involuntary drug testing in schools. The medical group prefers that worried parents have their children tested by qualified doctors or treatment specialists because of the possibility of error or tampering.
"It's deceptively simple, but the truth is, it's actually a very complicated issue," said Dr. Sharon Levy, who specializes in childhood addiction at Children's Hospital Boston.
Levy has studied the meteoric rise of home drug testing since the federal Food and Drug Administration first approved the kits in 1997. She worries not only about inaccuracy but also about eroding trust during a time when many teens are already pulling away from their parents.
Most tests use a litmus strip to detect traces of drugs or byproducts in urine. Others check hair samples or saliva. As many as 12 illicit and prescription drugs can be detected.
Still, experts worry the home tests are not sophisticated enough to catch low levels or every drug being used.
"Parents are motivated by the best of intentions," Levy said.
"They are told by marketers this is a good thing to do. But drug testing is basically a threat. And while it might have some short-term behavioral changes, I don't think it's a good long-term prevention method."
Drug Use Decreasing
Abuse by teens of prescription drugs, such as Vicodin and OxyContin, remains a problem. However, the most recent survey of 50,000 8th-, 10th-, and 12th-graders by Monitoring the Future shows the use of illicit drugs, such as marijuana, actually is decreasing. Monitoring the Future, a study by University of Michigan researchers funded by the National Institutes of Health, has tracked drug use among adolescents since 1975.
Still, the drug-testing business has never been better.
Last year, sales by industry leader Phamatech Inc. topped $27 million, said Carl Mongiovi, vice president of the San Diego company. He said sales included more than 431,000 marijuana tests alone.
Since Phamatech introduced the first home tests in 1999, sales have increased by more than 30 percent each year.
In Colorado Springs, Colo., single mother Amanda Beihl was one of the first to carve out a business from Internet sales.
Beihl created homedrugtestingkit.com and last year sold more than 100,000 kits to test for illicit and prescription drugs and alcohol use. She said her sales are proof of a pendulum swing toward stricter parenting.
"The first time you dip that stick in the cup, you feel empowered," explained Kim Hildreth, a mom in suburban Dallas. "As a parenting tool, this is as good as a report card."
Hildreth, too, sells kits from her home, often in bulk. She said her business, drugtestyourteen.com, has grown 100 percent each year for the past four years.
"It's a regular, accepted deal in our house," she said of random testing.
Hildreth's youngest daughter, Delaney, started using drugs at age 12 and struggled for several years to get clean. Now Hildreth uses the tests as a bargaining tool.
Delaney, now 18, recently got a puppy as a reward. "It took a lot of negative drug tests to get him," the teenager said.
Knowing your parents are waiting at home with a drug test makes it easier to resist temptation, she said.
Still, not all parents resort to such measures to keep their kids drug-free.
Dave Meggitt, a Denver father of two teens, can't envision drug-testing his kids. "I think it's important to trust your kids. If you put them under a microscope, you are asking for trouble," he said.
"I talk to my kids about drugs all the time. We have good communication. I think I would know if they were having a problem," the car dealer and mechanic said.
He also uses a Scared Straight method. He took his son on a bus ride through a rough neighborhood late one Saturday night.
"This could be your life," he told him as they watched drunks stagger to their seats and observed drug deals.
Robert McCrie, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, sees home drug tests as a piece of a bigger parenting shift in this country.
Ours is increasingly a "surveillance society," and parents are no exception as they log onto parental portals to check school grades or buy tracking devices for their children's cell phones, McCrie said.
The Boulder mother who drug-tested her son sees nothing wrong with such vigilance. She and her husband took a more relaxed attitude with their older son. Today, he continues to struggle with addiction. She takes no chances with her younger son.
And she's not concerned with what the experts say.
"You put your child in a car seat or a seat belt even though the odds are against getting in a car accident. Why would you ever take that chance of letting your child get further involved with drugs?" she asked.
"The experts aren't living with my child, in my house. They aren't putting their arms around them to protect them."
That's her job.
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