Testing the wrong policy on students

Why are Washington bureaucrats so enamored with random student drug testing? The evidence thus far is clear: drug testing has a poor track record in reducing student drug use, particularly in comparison to other drug prevention and education programs. Its fiscal toll on local school budgets saps money that would be better spent on basic educational needs. Drug testing also undermines parental authority, as parents have no input as to whether their child will be tested. Most ominously, the practice creates future citizens who become accustomed to ever-broader government surveillance as merely routine.

Despite these concerns, the federal government is using a wide array of public resources–monetary and institutional–to advance drug testing in schools nationwide. In 2002, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) issued a booklet called “What You Need to Know About Drug Testing in Schools.” The stated goal of the booklet is to “shed light and offer perspective on this multifaceted and sometimes controversial topic.”

The federal government’s activities go far beyond simple pamphleteering, however. The ONDCP sponsored four “Regional Testing Summits” this year on the subject. Random student drug testing was also advanced during the ONDCP’s “25 Cities Initiative,” where copies of its booklet were distributed to drug treatment professionals and law enforcement officials.

Then-Deputy Drug Czar Andrea Grubb Barthwell informally suggested at these meetings that drug testing should be extended to those students who drive to school and to young drivers seeking car insurance. This broad expansion of adolescent drug testing is also advanced by organizations like the Student Drug-Testing Coalition and the Drug Free America Foundation, which claim: “It’s not a trust issue, it’s a health and safety issue. As we said when dealing with the Soviet Union during the Cold War–‘trust but verify.'” Comparing American students to deadly totalitarian regimes is disturbing on its face, and it demonstrates the intemperate zeal of those who pursue authoritarian policy objectives under the genteel guise of “health” and “compassion.”

The ONDCP is also intent on strong-arming state governments from taking a pro-active approach to the issue. In late June, it sent Barthwell to the California legislature in order to testify against a bill banning mandatory random drug testing of students. Her taxpayer-funded appearance before the Assembly Education Committee, along with a retinue of assistants, represented her sixth formal visit to California in 2004 prior to her resignation.

Drug Czar John Walters touts drug testing as a “silver bullet” to combat student drug use. The best available scientific evidence shows otherwise. For example, a study of 960 schools with 94,000 students conducted by scientists who the federal government relies on for its Monitoring the Future survey of adolescent substance use, concluded:

[Drug testing] is found not to be associated with students’ reported illicit drug use–even random testing that potentially subjects the entire student body. Testing was not found to have significant association with the prevalence of drug use among the entire student body nor the prevalence of use among experienced marijuana users.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has also weighed in on drug testing programs targeting student-athletes and others involved in “competitive extracurricular activities.” Its Committee on Substance Abuse issued a formal policy statement that rejected the use of drug testing to combat substance abuse:

“Voluntary screening” is the term applied to many mass non-suspicion-based screening programs, yet such programs may not be truly voluntary as there are often negative consequences for those who choose not to take part. Participation in such programs should not be a prerequisite to participation in school activities.

This position stands in stark contrast to the increasingly widespread practice of schools requiring students to submit to drug testing as a condition of participation in extracurricular activities. Drug testing programs that deter or deprive students from participation in such activities are entirely counterproductive. Participation in such activities is the most effective method of combating the problems of substance use, pregnancy, and crime among juveniles.

Drug testing is a medical tool that is intended for two primary purposes: to support the diagnosis of substance abuse and addiction, and to facilitate treatment of those recovering from substance abuse and addiction. Medical practitioners do not consider testing a ‘silver bullet’ in either case, however. As the American Medical Association notes: “Drug testing does not provide any information about pattern of use of drugs, abuse of or dependence on drugs, or about mental or physical impairments that may result from drug use.”

The opinions of the scientific and medical communities aside, Walters also deliberately downplays individual privacy implications. In a 2003 Education Week interview he said, “I don’t think the privacy arguments pertain in the case of this disease [addiction]. . . . I’m not talking about reading kids’ diaries.” His foreword to the ONDCP booklet states that privacy concerns are “unfounded” and that those who focus on them “ignore the enormous potential benefits of drug testing.”

Attorney General John Ashcroft, who bemoans citizens invoking “phantoms of lost liberty,” shares the ONDCP’s callous disregard of individual rights on the drug-testing front. His Department of Justice offers legal counsel to school districts facing court challenges to their drug testing programs.

The Justice Department compounds its erroneous approach to adolescent drug policy by its continued financial support of the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) program. D.A.R.E., like student drug testing, has not been proven to deter adolescent drug and alcohol use. Because of its dubious effectiveness, the Department of Education’s Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program has withheld grant money since 1998.

Politicians and bureaucrats support programs like D.A.R.E. and student drug testing because they address an important social problem–adolescent substance use–without taking big risks to really solve the problem. As with other misguided government “crusades,” failure actually substantiates the call for more resources devoted to ephemeral outcomes like “enormous potential benefits.” The high costs of such meaningless hyperbole are buttressed by the pervasive political desire to use police officers and schoolchildren as human props on the grand stage of government.

Thus the federal government’s ongoing commitment to a costly, ineffective policy boondoggle like student drug testing is unsurprising. What is more notable is Washington’s quiet yet powerful bureaucratic assault on this nation’s parents and students. Individual liberties–and those constitutional values acknowledging them–should not be blithely regarded as pesky inconveniences by those who are charged with their protection.

Nikos A. Leverenz is an analyst at the Sacramento office of the Drug Policy Alliance.

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