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New study casts doubts on effectiveness of drug testing students

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Rick Wilking/Reuters

(Read caption) A fully budded marijuana plant is seen at the Botanacare marijuana store in Northglenn, Colo.

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School-imposed drug tests do little to deter marijuana use among teenagers, according to the authors of a new study on drug prevention. The overall tone of a school’s climate may play a bigger role in prevention than any punitive measures, they add.

Currently, 20 percent of private and public schools in the United States employ drug testing. Some reserve the tests for students suspected of abusing drugs while others require all students participating in sports or other extracurricular activities submit to a urine test.

The study published Monday in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs analyzes a variety of other studies on the issue. It concludes that “some universal school drug-prevention efforts, which aim to improve the knowledge and encourage students to ‘say no,’ have shown disappointing results; however, other approaches that provide social life-skill training have shown positive effects.” 

Life-skill training programs aim to prevent destructive behavior among students by establishing "good relations between teachers, students, and parents – the triad of communication,” says Dan Romer, the director of the Adolescent Communication Institute at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Public Policy in Philadelphia and a lead author of the study. Researchers from the University of Haifa in Israel were also involved.

Schools try to create a positive climate “by engaging students in the decisionmaking that goes on in the school, making sure that they feel a part of it, and that if discipline is needed that it’s done in a way that’s not arbitrary but is explained,” Dr. Romer adds.

That is not to say that fostering a positive school climate and implementing drug testing are mutually exclusive.

“There are schools where students feel it is a good climate and that they do test, so it’s probably a function of how it’s done,” Romer says.

The addition of drug testing in schools known to have a good climate does seem to lead to a reduction in drug use among girls, Romer found. But drug testing did not seem to have any impact on boys’ behavior, regardless of the school climate.

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Others suggest that the way in which drug testing is done is key. Schools that rely on drug tests should use them as a part of a larger, health-based prevention effort rather than as punitive tool, says Desirae Vasquez, director of program services for Freedom from Chemical Dependency in Newton, Mass., which helps schools implement drug tests.

Communication among parents, students, and administrators can go a long way toward making a policy effective, she adds.

“We don’t endorse or oppose random drug testing,” Ms. Vasquez says. “We help schools define their own effective drug prevention climate for themselves.”

But Romer argues that any drug testing program, no matter how well intentioned, can backfire.

One study Romer examined found that implementing drug tests actually led to an increase in illicit drug use. That’s a particularly troubling finding, considering the added risk of overdose associated with many illicit drugs.

In addition to potentially driving users to more dangerous substances, Romer worries about other unintended consequences of drug testing.

“First there’s the whole issue of not trusting people and assuming that everyone is guilty,” Romer says. “Then there are false positives – no test is perfect. And third, there is an issue of privacy. People will know if kids are removed from activities and there could be a stigma attached to that.”

Under federal law, public schools can only require students who participate in extracurricular activities to submit to random drug tests. In general, such participation is associated with a reduced level of drug use. One common consequence of a positive drug test is to remove the student from those extracurricular activities. Romer worries that this response is counterintuitive.

“By throwing them out of those activities, you are actually increasing the risk,” he says.

Vasquez maintains that these and other concerns can be addressed through conscientious planning and implementation and effective communication between parents, students, and faculty.

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