Saturday, 31 January 2015

Do we really want to live in a world where we drug test our kids?

Each year the issue of schools drug testing our kids pops up and receives a flurry of media attention. A couple of weeks ago I highlighted a Herald Sun story titled 'Ice Hits Schools', a woeful piece of journalism that provided no evidence to back up the sensational headline and opening paragraph - "Desperate schools have flagged drug-testing their students to try to combat the rampant abuse of ice and other illicit substances".  As I said in that blog entry, there was a very 'wishy-washy' statement claiming the paper had been told that "some schools" had made contact with agencies, asking about drug testing and that an agency "confirmed that it had been approached by both teachers and parents" but that was it!

We now live in a world where drug testing is becoming increasingly popular, e.g., roadside saliva drug testing or workplace drug testing. There are websites that provide parents with kits, swabs, and a variety of other materials to use to identify whether their child is in fact using drugs. There are even companies in Australia that now offer parents a sniffer dog for hire to test whether their child has brought illegal drugs into their home! Has the world gone completely insane?

My greatest problem with drug testing our kids is the message it sends to them about how prevalent we think drug use is amongst our teens. Have we really got to the point where we believe there is so much drug use in our schools that we need to randomly drug test them? I keep saying it, but if you look at all the data we do have about school-based young people and their drug use, 'recent use' (use in the last 12 months) is at some of the lowest levels we've seen - the truth is that most Australian secondary school students don't use illicit drugs. It certainly changes when they leave school, with drug use peaking when they reach their 20s, but to my knowledge no general population data suggests that teen use is at epidemic proportions! Now it may be true that we may see changes in the upcoming data that has recently been collected but will it show 'spiralling drug use' amongst this group? I very much doubt it.

To my mind, implementing drug testing in schools (random or otherwise) simply sends the wrong message to our kids and is fraught with a range of problems. Some of my major concerns are as follows:
  • Those young people who are taking drugs are likely to find ways of getting around testing. You only have to do a quick search of the web to find a range of sites that provide methods of passing different drug tests. Who would have ever thought that urine would ever become something such a valuable commodity and that there would be sites dedicated to its sale? Realistically, those young people who are regularly using drugs are going to find ways of beating a drug test, and remember if schools ever decide to go down this path (god forbid!), the type of testing is likely to be the least intrusive possible, making it far easier to beat
  • It's incredibly costly - random school drug testing is expensive and at a time when all schools (no matter how wealthy they may be) are tightening their belts and watching every penny, you would hope there would be more cost effective ways of dealing with potential drug use than getting students to urinate into little bottles. Really the only people who are winning out here are the drug testing companies!
  • 'False positives' are possible and can devastate a young person's life. As much as testing companies will try to sell their products as 100% accurate - that just isn't the case - the tests are not foolproof. If even one young person gets a false positive and their life is ruined by the result then that's one too many! Once someone is labelled as a drug user in a school setting, no matter what evidence comes next to disprove that finding, that label will stick to some extent
  • Parents love the idea until it is their child that gets busted! It's all well and good parents supporting this strategy but what if it was their child that got tested and came up with a positive result (false or not)? I can guarantee that their stance would then change very quickly ...
  • The potential harm to the child-school relationship is huge - launching a school drug testing program potentially damages all the wonderful work that schools do to build a safe, connected community. As the American Academy of Pediatrics (yes, American!) noted "Drug testing poses substantial risks—in particular, the risk of harming the parent-child and school-child relationships by creating an environment of resentment, distrust, and suspicion" - I couldn't have said it better myself ... 
  • Most importantly, what does the school do once they identify someone who has taken drugs? And this is where it gets really difficult - if you're going to go looking for something, you've got to make pretty damn sure that you know what you're going to do if you find it! Once again, parents are all 'gung-ho' about this until it is their child that gets caught. If a teen gets a positive test and is then 'moved on' from the school (or even suspended for a period of time), the reality is that they are then branded for life as a 'druggie' - no-one wants that. Very few schools have been successful in working out what to do with students who have been caught using drugs - it's a difficult area and one that is made even more complex with drug testing
Now I want to make it clear that I believe there is a place for certain types of drug testing – testing in a treatment context where you are trying to assess whether a person is 'clean' or not makes sense. Workplace drug testing where intoxication could lead to significant harm for the user and those around them (e.g., drivers of public transport or heavy machinery, airline pilots) is also important. But even then, as already said, many of these tests are not completely reliable and 'false positives' can lead to devastating consequences for those involved, even in treatment settings. This is happening while drug testing companies across the world are making millions promoting the message to as many people as possible that this is the way to go. Surely there has to be a better way - particularly as far as school-based young people are concerned.

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