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April 2004
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Not everyone signs on to school drug testing…

The Drug Czar has not only been pushing school drug testing here, but our government has been trying to influence other countries, starting with Bush ally Tony Blair. Fortunately, not everyone in the UK is willing to roll over and fund the testers. Professor of Public Health Woody Caan wrote in the British Medical Journal:

Last month the prime minister, Tony Blair, lent his weight to random drug testing in schools in an interview for a downmarket newspaper. He proposed a national programme be implemented soon, adhering to unspecified central directives.

The Department of Health has 19 criteria for introducing new screening programmes.2 At least 18 of these 19 criteria are not met for widespread, wide spectrum drug urine analysis in schools. The remaining criterion is that the condition is an important health problem.

Drug use in young people is indeed associated with many health risks,3 but a single, positive urine test, for any illicit drug, is probably not meaningful in a clinical sense. Each schoolchild’s context of use (family history, social and emotional development) is crucial to interpreting any supposed “drug career.” Use by a homeless pregnant teenage runaway from local authority care with a history of deliberate self harm and high risk sex work to pay for her drugs may be very different from a single experimental use at home with adults during a family party.

I find this to be a refreshing point of view. Not only does Professor Caan point out technical shortcomings, but he also asks the question that is not being asked in this country: What does a positive test mean? He notes that it is different in different situations, and that a plan needs to be developed to determine how you work with people who test positive.
But in this country, we’ve looked at testing as absolute — as zero tolerance — as if the test was more important than any actual drug problem. Who cares about impairment? — we just test for the presence of the drug. Who cares whether some drugs have different affects than others? Who cares whether somebody has a medical drug problem? — we just lump all positive tests together.
We could learn something from the Brits here (not including Tony, of course).

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