Fighting the Drug War One Urine Sample at a Time

Texas school districts will get a total of just more than $618,000 from the U.S. Dept. of Education to establish andom student drug testing programs

Six Texas school districts will get a total of just more than $618,000 from the U.S. Dept. of Education to establish random student drug testing programs during the 2007-2008 school year, according to the DOE. And that’s a good thing, White House Office of the National Drug Control Policy drug czar Director John Walters said on Aug. 31 – in fact, the czar was quite “pleased” to share the news. “By providing students with a reason to say ‘no,’ we empower them to resist negative peer pressure and make healthy decisions about drug use,” he said. While encouraging kids to resist peer pressure is always an admirable goal, there is little evidence that tossing federal funds toward the establishment of random student drug testing is actually a means of achieving it. In fact, a January 2003 study on the effectiveness of random testing programs, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, found no link between testing and decreased drug use. The truth is this: adolescent drug use rises and falls like the ocean – and whether an individual uses drugs appears impacted more by the influence of parents, peers, and mentors than by the ONDCP and its various programs, including the much-derided anti-drug media campaign and the much-hyped drug testing program. The RWJF study data, for example, suggested that, “drug testing, as practiced in recent years in American secondary schools, does not prevent or inhibit student drug use.” Surprise, surprise!

Still, Walters joined with DOE Secretary Margaret Spellings last week to announce the recipients of the latest round of drug testing grants – totaling $1.6 million, distributed among 14 districts in six states (Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Montana, Ohio, and Texas) – where Spellings touted the grants as a means to “help improve the climate for teaching and learning by providing school districts…funds needed to establish a student drug testing program…to prevent student drug use,” she said. Providing students another reason to “defy peer pressure.” Just say “no” kids – or pee in a cup; it’s your choice!

The ONDCP reports that more than 1,000 schools have joined the drug testing parade, and that nearly half have done so with federal funds. While that may be the case, it isn’t entirely clear how many of those schools have actually continued their programs – considering that the federal grants are awarded annually, and that just 14 districts in six states have grabbed a piece of the pie for the current school year, it would seem that enthusiasm for drug testing hasn’t exactly maintained a steady beat. (There are, of course, state-funded programs in the mix – like Texas’ new steroid-testing program, which is slated to begin this year for high school athletes, and projected to cost about $4 million per year. The law, passed this spring – SB 8 – requires the University Interscholastic League to lead the charge, and requires all student athletes to agree not to use steroids and to submit to random testing as a condition of participating in “competitive extra-curricular activities.” The UIL told lawmakers that it estimates testing 3% of 740,000 students each year. At least for now, the funds to do so will likely come from the state budget.) And it doesn’t appear that anyone is as enchanted with the idea of drug testing as is Walters: program funding peaked in 2005, when $7.2 million was budgeted for testing programs (that year Texas schools took nearly $2.4 million in funds, the largest slice of the drug testing pie), and has since waned, even though the Bush Administration that year proposed increasing the annual drug-testing budget to a whopping $25.4 million.

Perhaps the shrinking allocation has something to do with the fact that the only federally-commissioned study on the efficacy of student drug testing also concluded that there was no discernible relationship between drug testing and lower drug use. Published in April 2003, the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research study of 76,000 students in the 8th, 10th, and 12th grades found, at each grade level, “virtually identical rates of drug use” in schools with testing programs and those without the programs. In all, Paul Armentano, senior policy analyst for NORML, who tracks the feds’ drug testing program dreams, remains unimpressed with program results: “Year after year the federal government wastes taxpayers’ dollars in their effort to persuade school administrators that they should adopt this failed policy, but each year there are fewer and fewer takers,” he said.

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