YES: It Reverses the Spread of Addiction
By Andrea Barthwell, deputy director for Demand Reduction for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy
Today in Atlanta, concerned parents will meet with regional school officials, drug prevention specialists and student assistance professionals to discuss the promise of a powerful new tool to fight drug use among America's youth.
Building on the 11 percent decline in teen drug use America has witnessed in the past two years, random student drug testing -- locally controlled, nonpunitive and designed to get help for those in trouble -- can help consolidate and further our progress.
Addiction is a pediatric-onset disease that needs a public health response. In much the same way that school tuberculosis tests identify children who are sick and can spread a dangerous disease, student drug testing helps identify kids who have a problem with drugs and prevents the spread of the disease of addiction.
Each child prevented from using drugs means there is one fewer child able to pass the disease of addiction to his or her peers, and we know that if we can prevent children from using drugs in their teen years, they are much less likely to go on and use drugs later in life.
In the past decade, the nation's acceptance of student drug testing has increased, hastened by the U.S. Supreme Court's 2002 ruling that drug testing students in extracurricular activities is constitutionally protected.
President Bush highlighted this policy as an effective prevention and intervention instrument during his State of the Union speech in January, and backed up his position with a call for increased federal funds for schools that would like to start these programs. This momentum in favor of student drug testing is based on the demonstrated effectiveness of random testing programs to deter use, and a more educated public understanding that student drug test results can only be used confidentially to help students, not to punish them.
Random drug testing of students in extracurricular activities is effective because it demonstrates that a community has set a serious standard for its youth. In addition to creating a culture of disapproval toward drugs, student drug testing also achieves three public health goals:
It deters children from initiating drug use;
It identifies children who have just started using drugs so that parents and counselors can intervene early;
It helps identify children who have a dependency on drugs so that they can be referred to effective drug treatment.
According to a study in the Journal of Adolescent Health, a school in Oregon that randomly drug tested student athletes had a rate of drug use that was one-quarter that of a comparable school with no drug testing policy.
After two years of a drug testing program, Hunterdon Central Regional High School in New Jersey saw significant reductions in 20 of 28 drug use categories, including a drop in cocaine use by seniors from 13 percent to 4 percent. The U.S. military saw drug use rates drop from 27 percent in 1981 to 3 percent today, thanks to the introduction of random drug testing.
Fortune 500 companies, small businesses, and regulated transportation industries have extensive experience in using this public health diagnostic tool. Every American who steps on an airplane or sends a child out to the school bus rests easier knowing that pilots and bus drivers are drug tested. Drug testing saves lives and we can no longer withhold the proven benefits of drug testing from the members of society that are most vulnerable to drugs' destructive influence.
NO: It's Costly, Humiliating and Not a Deterrent
By Marsha Rosenbaum, director of the Safety First Project of the Drug Policy Alliance in San Francisco
Today, Atlanta will host the Office of National Drug Control Policy student drug testing tour. Atlanta is the site of the third of four summits at which the White House will peddle its nationwide student drug testing agenda. But although they will be getting the hard sell complete with offers of federal funding, I urge Atlanta educators and parents to consider the very real dangers of student drug testing:
Random drug testing does not deter drug use. The same large survey President 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. It is a humiliating violation of privacy. Testing can also 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.
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."
Drug testing is expensive and inefficient. As in Atlanta, 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 material rather than symbolic impact on high school drug abuse.
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.
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. Trusting, open relationships with parents and other adults have been proven to decrease teen drug use.
Unfortunately, drug testing actually has the effect of undermining parental influence, forcing adults to say to teenagers, in essence, "I don't trust you."
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.
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