Newsbrief: As British Parties Embrace Student Drug Testing, Research Report Flashes Caution Light 3/4/05

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With British Conservatives and Laborites busily embracing random student drug testing as they vie to out-tough each other on drug and crimes issues ahead of looming parliamentary elections, a respected think-tank has released on report challenging both the efficacy and the ethics of testing school kids for drugs. Britain should not turn to random drug testing until and unless there is better evidence to support it, the report concluded.

"Random drug testing of schoolchildren: A shot in the arm or a shot in the foot for drug prevention?" was released February 23 and is a nicely timed intervention in an election campaign marked by an increasingly hysterical approach to drugs and crime as the May election approaches. The report was commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, a century-old social policy research center and authored by Neil McKeganey, professor of Drug Misuse Research at the University of Glasgow. In his review of the research on school drug testing, which is extremely rare in Britain, McKenagey concluded that encouraging schools to conduct such tests would be "ethically complex" and could have "adverse consequences."

Despite increasing resort to student drug testing in the United States, McKenagey found, there have been few independent and rigorous evaluations of its impact. "In the light of this," he reported, "it would seem preferable to avoid the ad hoc proliferation of random drug-testing programs until such time as there are clear data on effectiveness."

McKenagey and the Rowntree Foundation also identified several problematic aspects of school drug testing. Random testing is most likely to identify students who occasionally use cannabis, the most commonly used drug, while students using harder drugs are more likely to escape undetected, McKenagey wrote. This could lead to the "perverse consequence" of students switching to harder drugs that leave the body more quickly than pot, as well as "an escalation in attempts to conceal illegal drug taking, rather than a reduction in use."

There are a number of unresolved issues around student drug testing, including costs; ethical issues such as who gets tested, informed consent, and confidentiality; and the undermining of trust between school staff and students, McKenagey noted. Given the problems and unresolved issues, as well as the lack of evidence that drug testing succeeds in reducing drug use, great caution is in order, he wrote.

"It is difficult to judge the true likelihood of drug-testing being widely used in UK schools," he concluded. "Unlike the United States, no central government funding has been allocated for programs. However, if random drug-testing programs were to be piloted, there would be an obvious need to ensure that their impact was rigorously and independently evaluated. Such evaluation would need to be undertaken on a large enough sample of schools to be sure that any positive or negative outcomes were a genuine consequence of the drug-testing program. Research would also need to consider the possible impact of a drug-testing program on young people's wider educational experience."

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Issue #377 -- 3/4/05

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