Should We Drug Test Our Children?
There is no secret that our kids use drugs. More than half use an illegal substance before they graduate from high school. If children are subjected to random drug testing, goes the logic, testing might stop their drug use, or at least serve as a red flag to their parents. The problem is that not all of our kids use drugs, and even the ones who are at greatest danger are in the minority. So should we treat all kids as guilty until proven innocent? As a physician who has drug tested patients thousands of times, my answer is simple: no drug tests without reasonable suspicion.
People who work with addicts know there are perfectly good reasons for drug testing. Testing helps guide them when an addict is detoxing, or has just taken an overdose. Drug testing tells you important things when the patient can’t. Drug testing can be an aid in working with addicts as they flirt with relapse. In a word, drug testing is a terrific clinical tool. So why all the fuss about drug testing our kids in school?
People are split on the issue of drug testing. At issue is a conflict between the desire to keep our children safe on the one hand and the rights of privacy and freedom from illegal searches on other.
In 2002 the Supreme Court heard the case brought by high school student Lindsay Earls against her Board of Education. As a member of the Tecumseh High School marching band, she was required to submit to random urine checks. Earls knew she was drug free, and defended her privacy. She correctly felt that being in a marching band did not automatically put her at risk for drugs. Supporting her case were the National Education Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
But in a 5 to 4 decision, the Court ruled against the high school student. Writing for the majority, Justice Thomas argued that schools have a greater interest in protecting children than maintaining their privacy. The four dissenting justices called the drug test program “capricious, even perverse.” The dissenters further noted that the Tecumseh drug testing policy invaded the privacy of students who need deterrence the least, kids motivated to take part in extracurricular activities, while keeping kids at risk away from activities that might actually keep them off of drugs.
Despite the Earls case, there has been no stampede by schools to drug test our kids. One optimistically thinks that common sense may be loose in the land. Variations on drug testing have been proposed, such as having parents “register” their children for random testing in schools. Results would go to the parents, and parents would be educated regarding treatment options.
But a random drug test does not answer the critical questions of how much, how often, or even what a kid has been taking. Testing does not discriminate between kids who experiment and kids who are seriously involved with drugs. Testing can be inaccurate. A crafty child can sabotage it. Testing ignores the most medically devastating drugs, tobacco and alcohol. But most instructive of all, scientific data show that random drug testing does not reduce drug use. A 2003 survey of 722 secondary American schools involving 76,000 students by the University of Michigan found virtually identical rates of drug use in schools that have drug testing and schools that do not.
A clean kid does not need to be drug tested. A kid involved in drugs usually doesn’t, either. If a parent can already see the red flags, one more won’t make a great difference. So is there a place for drug testing our kids? Sure, when a parent has suspicion of drug use, or when a kid has something to prove. Otherwise, the best drug test I know is the hug-and-sniff when they walk through the front door, with a heart to heart for a eye-opener the following morning. The strongest weapon we have to combat drug use in our children is not the chemistry lab, but heads-up parenting.
Henry David Abraham, M.D.’s recent book is “What’s a Parent to Do? Straight Talk about Drugs and Alcohol.”