School drug testing gets thoughtful criticism

Drug testing in schools is one of the many aspects of the drug war that has a visceral appeal to those looking for quick prohibition-style solutions to the “drug problem.” Quite frankly, they are generally able to see it in only one dimension and therefore dismiss, in amazement, any criticism of mandatory random suspicion-less testing as the ravings of people who somehow want children to abuse drugs. (This is often more simply framed using the fascist phrase that always makes my skin crawl: “If you don’t have anything to hide, you have no reason to be concerned.”)
And with the full weight of the federal government pushing mandatory random suspicion-less drug testing in schools as being nothing more intrusive than a health inoculation, it’s almost surprising that anyone is willing to step up and discuss the real facts about student drug testing.
So it’s heartening that, despite the losses, there are school districts all over the country who are standing up to the drug czar, that are listening to SSDP and DPA and NORML representatives at drug testing summits, and that there are newspapers willing to editorialize (even if not perfectly) against a massive testing regime.
In New Jersey:

THERE’S no doubt that drinking and drug use are significant problems in some — if not many — North Jersey high schools. But sweeping random drug tests are not just an overreaction, they are a frightening violation of students’ privacy. […]
We […] support testing any students who display signs of drug or alcohol abuse and clearly need help.
But random testing, with no prior evidence of a problem, is an invasion of privacy. Schools should offer extensive education and counseling on substance abuse issues. They should not, in effect, be in the business of spying on students.

In Indiana:

It seems that punishing students and preventing them from taking advantage of school activities would exacerbate the problem by pushing students the wrong way. If they are shut out from school activities, it would follow that they would be more vulnerable to the behavior that got them in trouble in the first place.
We can understand schools wanting to take a proactive approach to drug prevention. We take issue with the punishment and the selectivity of the students. In the long run, this could harm students by ostracizing them from the student body.
We’d like to see the counseling as the main part of the policy, not as an amnesty afterthought. The punishment should come only after continued drug-testing failures. We don’t want to see the policy do more harm than good, and unless school officials sharply curtail the punishment and concentrate on counseling, that is what will happen.

And the Los Angeles Times has an article in tomorrow’s paper which gives full coverage to the Walters nonsense, but also counters it:

But health officials, by and large, oppose school-based drug testing. NAADAC, the Assn. for Addiction Professionals, has released a statement critical of such programs. And in March, the American Academy of Pediatrics cautioned against random school-based drug testing until more research is completed. The two groups are among those who say testing is not reliable enough, violates trust between adults and teens and is not set up to deal effectively with students who have positive results. […]
“If you look on the surface, drug testing seems like a good idea; a simple thing to do,” says Dr. Sharon Levy, director of the Adolescent Substance Abuse Program at Children’s Hospital Boston. “It’s only when you sit down and look at it closely that it really starts to unravel a bit.”
Chief among the pediatricians’ complaints is the reliability of testing.
A study published in April in the journal Pediatrics found a substantial risk of error even when drug testing was performed as part of an established adolescent substance abuse program. In the study, Levy and her colleagues reviewed 710 random urine tests from 110 teens and compared the results with confirmatory lab tests. (Initial screening samples should be confirmed with a second, more rigorous, analysis Ö something most school programs say they do.) They found 12% of the tests were subject to misinterpretation. For example, some of the urine samples were diluted (despite rigorous collection procedures designed to prevent kids from cheating) and could not be interpreted properly.
Further, of the samples, 21% were positive due to legitimate prescription drug use, Levy says. And several samples that were found in confirmatory testing to be positive for the painkiller OxyContin Ö a popular drug of abuse among teens Ö were identified as negative in the initial screen.
“Drug testing is premature policy,” says Levy. “We need to understand the combination of risks and costs compared to the benefits. That hasn’t been done at all.”
Further, critics say, the drug testing panels used by schools are typically those used in the workplace Ö screens for marijuana, amphetamines, cocaine, opiates and PCP. The panels usually do not assess alcohol or other drugs kids may be likely to use, such as inhalants, OxyContin and Ecstasy. Standard urine tests only detect use that has occurred in the last 48 to 72 hours.
Negative screens may mislead parents, school personnel and the community from searching for a truer picture of adolescent drug and alcohol use, Kern says.
“Parents can say ‘OK, the schools are doing testing, we’ll know what is going on,’ ” she says. “But drug testing gives you very little information. It can give parents a false sense of security.”
Even the belief that testing deters kids from using drugs or gives them a peer-worthy reason to say no has not been proven, Kern says. A 2003 study by the University of Michigan surveying 76,000 students found no difference in marijuana or other illicit drug use in schools with testing compared with those without programs. […]
Others critics of the program say school drug testing can make teens feel guilty before being proven innocent. While many programs Ö such as several in Orange County Ö only test students if they and their parents consent, kids may feel that adults distrust them, Kern says.
“There may be unintended consequences to drug testing,” says Dr. Howard Taras, a pediatrics professor at UC San Diego, who studies school health issues. “Kids may be deterred from joining a sport or extracurricular activity because they will be tested. Those are the kids that most need extracurricular activities. They may not get engaged in math or science but they may get engaged by a sport or dance class.”

Side note: In the LA Times article, one of the old stand-bys gets dragged out once again.

Even if testing programs aren’t perfect, recent research on the effect of drug use on adolescent brains warrants an aggressive approach to the problem, Walters says. Studies show that heavy drug use during adolescence may permanently damage parts of the brain related to learning and memory. People who avoid drinking and using drugs before age 21 are far less likely to abuse drugs or develop an addiction later.

What does that last sentence mean? It sounds important, but is it? Age 21? There is a certain small portion of the population who never tries alcohol or other drugs before age 21. These are people who, for the most part, have pretty much made the decision for personal reasons having nothing to do with drug testing or the drug war, and it’s true — they’re unlikely to become addicts or abuse alcohol or other drugs (or even use them, for that matter). But that has absolutely no connection to, nor does it provide any support for, drug testing in schools (in fact, it provides no useful guidance at all).
Now it would be interesting and potentially useful information to learn whether those who use specific drugs in early adolescence (12-16, say) would be more likely to abuse (rather than recreationally use) specific drugs during late adolescence. That still would not support a suspicion-less testing regime, but it would perhaps point to the need for regulation.
But as usual, the drug czar brings up unreferenced data which means nothing, in order to support unsupportable policies.

[Thanks, Tom]
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