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April 1, 2007 - Honolulu Star-Bulletin (HI)

Column: Addicted To Life

School Drug Testing: Hysteria, Mistrust, Ruined Lives ... Yes, It's A Witch Hunt

By Rich Figel

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SALEM - Following an outbreak of strange behavior among young girls, authorities have called for random "witch-testing" of other children and adults the girls were in contact with.

The test involves a special cake made with rye meal and the afflicted girls' urine, which is fed to a dog. According to the test administrator, this "counter-magic" will reveal the identity of the witches, since dogs are known to be their helpers. Concerns about the test's accuracy prompted one villager to respond: "Law-abiding citizens have nothing to fear from testing. Unless, of course, you are a witch."

That was in 1692. Explanations for what happened next range from bored kids acting out stories they heard, to personal vendettas, local politics and a failed frontier war against the Wabanakis Indians. My favorite theory though, was that a fungus in the rye crop (ergot) could have caused convulsions and LSD-type hallucinations. However, the evidence suggests it's more likely that paranoia and jealousy were the real causes of the hysteria that swept through Salem.

Within a few months, hundreds of men and women were accused of being witches. Dozens were imprisoned, and many of them "confessed" to witchcraft. Nineteen were hanged, one was pressed to death with stones, three died in prison and two dogs were executed for being witches' accomplices. And it all started with the "witch cake" test.

Although it's not clear to me how the dog would identify the witch after eating the rye and urine mixture, this much we know: Mary Sibley asked Tituba, a slave from Barbados (where they presumably knew about voodoo and such) to use "counter-magic" to find out who had bewitched the children. So Tituba baked the witch cake ... and was then accused of being a witch herself. Which just goes to prove how good intentions can backfire in unintended ways. Tituba confessed to practicing witchcraft, then named two other women as suspected witches to get the ball rolling.

I understand why rational people would think drug testing in our schools is a good idea. They see the headlines and TV news clips of teachers and school janitors being led away in handcuffs, and the knee-jerk reaction is to lock them all up before they "infect" our children. They hear about studies that show half of all kids have tried one drug or another, and they want assurances that something is being done about it.

But with all due respect, drug testing is not the answer. Here's why it flunks the common-sense test:

It only deters use of drugs that are being tested for. Here in Hawaii, the construction industry also is proposing testing of workers. Yet toxicology reports show that the biggest cause of accidents at mainland construction sites is alcohol -- a legal drug. So students, teachers and school employees can still drink all they want on weekends, and the tests won't deter that. It's no coincidence that binge drinking is now a major problem on college campuses.

Students might turn to more dangerous drugs that don't stay in the system as long as illicit substances such as marijuana. They also might try potentially deadly alternatives like chugging cough syrup or "huffing" inhalants. Can we test for all those things, too?

Testing catches users, not necessarily dealers. Moreover, just as bootleggers and moonshiners adapted during Prohibition, pushers are always adjusting to the market place. Burn pakalolo fields, and crystal meth takes pot's place. Crack down on ice, cocaine sales go up. Bust the coke dealers, and someone will sell kids prescription meds like OxyContin -- or Xanax.

It's costly and unreliable. A spokesperson for Hawaii teachers estimates it would cost close to half a million dollars a year to test all 13,000 teachers. How much more would it cost to test students?

There have also been reports that up to 30 percent of such tests result in "false positives," largely from commonly used medicines. Let's say "random" testing was used to cut down the total cost. Fine. But if even a small percentage of the tests turn out to be wrong, how much will the state pay in damages from lawsuits initiated by teachers or students whose lives have been ruined?

There are saner alternatives. The Star-Bulletin recently ran a story on counseling programs being offered in high schools to address substance abuse problems. Instead of treating kids as criminals, the counselors teach students about addiction and help them take steps toward recovery. (You can read that story on the Web at

Although advocates of drug testing say they would provide the same type of help for students or teachers who have a drug problem, they don't say how you undo the stigma of a false-positive test result or gossip that turns a sniffle from the flu into "proof" that a teacher is snorting cocaine in the faculty restroom.

So please, before we get too carried away, take a deep breath and call off the drug-sniffing dogs. Perhaps we also should remember an important axiom of American law that came out of the Salem witch trials. In a work titled "Cases of Conscience," Increase Mather wrote it was "better that ten suspected witches should escape than one innocent person should be condemned."

Repeat after me: Just Say No to drug testing. It won't be random, and it will cost us far more in money and personal freedom than we stand to gain from another misguided witch hunt.

Rich Figel is a screenwriter who lives in Kailua. He has been clean and sober for 18 years. His column appears periodically in the Insight section.

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