A four-city road show organized by the Office of National Drug Control Policy and designed to promote student drug testing as the "silver bullet" to confront teen drug use ended Wednesday in Portland, but the presence of fact-baring, question-asking, literature-providing drug reformers at all four events contributed mightily to taking the luster off the drug testers' pitch.
The drug czar's "School Drug Testing Summits" are part of an aggressive push by ONDCP and the Bush administration to increase the use of student drug testing. The administration has budgeted $25 million in the FY 2006 budget for grants to "support schools in the design and implementation of programs to randomly screen selected students and to intervene with assessment, referral, and intervention for students whose test results indicate they have used illicit drugs." The summits are designed to gin up support for the measure, both among educators, who attend the summits, and the public at large, who reads about them in the press.
But drug reform groups such as Drug Policy Alliance and Students for Sensible Drug Policy, which have made student drug testing a particular focus, geared up to counter the ONDCP propaganda in all four cities. They have been joined by individual activists and local groups across the country, as well as other reform groups working the issue.
"This has become a central issue for the Alliance. We see it within the context of a larger movement to erode our civil liberties and maybe end up with drug testing for everybody," said Jenny Kern, DPA point person on school drug testing. "Our office of legal affairs was very involved in the Lindsay Earls case," she said, referring to the 2002 Supreme Court decision okaying suspicionless drug testing of students involved in extracurricular activities. The Supreme Court had already approved the testing of student athletes in 1995.
"Out of that litigation, we decided our strategy would be to craft a campaign to give parents and educators the tools to challenge drug testing in their areas," said Kern. "We've been working very closely with SSDP," Kern said, "and the ACLU Drug Policy Litigation Project, and NORML is very involved in the drug testing issue, too. We are just a few small voices in opposition to drug testing, but because of our presence at the ONDCP summits, they are aware of us and they feel like they have to address our points. We are making them pause."
DPA laid the groundwork for participants in the four cities, Kern said. "We sent out action alerts encouraging our members to go to the summits, we provided an online tool kit, we had fact sheets, fliers, and suggested questions all ready," said Kern. "And we created a web site – http://www.drugtestingfails.org -- where people can access more material."
The first stop on the summit tour was Dallas. Led by ONDCP deputy director Mary Anne Solberg and Drug Free Schools Coalition director David Evans, the panelists told assembled educators and interested citizens that drug testing was a proven means for reducing teen drug use. But while Solberg and her fellow panelists touted science, their spiels were designed to appeal to the emotions. Solberg, for example, regaled the audience with the tale of the high school cheerleader who took one toke from a joint and ended up as a heroin addict seven months later.
Suzy Wills of the Drug Policy Forum of Texas was one of a handful of reformers in the audience for the day-long session. With summit organizers allowing written questions only, Wills and company submitted theirs – and got a response. "They did try to answer some hostile questions from us," she told DRCNet, "but I think they did that to deflect criticism later. We asked why they continued to fight a failed drug war, and no one responded at the time, but in her closing statement, Mary Ann Solberg gave it a try. She said it wasn't a failed drug war, but a successful public health policy. Try telling that to all those people in prison," Wills scoffed.
The tough questions provided an opportunity for Evans, veteran leader of the Drug Free Schools Coalition and tireless proponent of student drug testing, to stick his foot in his mouth, Wills said. "We asked them to explain why all these experts and organizations – we got the list from the DPA book on drug testing -- oppose drug testing. Evans admitted he didn't know why pediatricians were on record opposing it, but then he said the only reason teachers' groups opposed was because they were afraid they would be next. That's not too smart when you're audience is an auditorium full of teachers."
In terms of media coverage, the event was a draw, said Wills. "We got zero media coverage, not us, not the summit, nothing in the local press," she said. "They may have had better luck at the summit itself," Wills suggested. "We had materials at a table at the back and people picked them up, and we made educators aware that there is opposition to this. I think that may discourage them from pushing too hard for drug testing in their schools. But I think the main thing we did was make the drug czar's office aware that there is opposition."
It certainly seemed like they were listening. Nine days later in St. Louis, one of the official presenters waved around the DPA booklet, "Making Sense of Drug Testing: Why Educators Are Saying No," read its executive summary aloud and attempted to refute its arguments, according to an on-scene report from Washington University SSDP member Sam Barclay.
By the time the summit made its way to Pittsburgh last week, anti-drug testing forces had already scored a media coup with DPA drug education expert Marsha Rosenbaum facing off against drug czar John Walters in a battle of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette op-ed pieces. And waiting for the summiteers in the audience were SSDP communications and legislative directors Tom Angell and Ross Wilson.
"Our objective was to prevent the ONDCP from being able to present itself as all-knowing and authoritative on the topic of student drug testing in front of an audience of open-minded educators and school officials who are rightly concerned with preventing substance abuse among their students," said Angell. "Since summit attendees were truly concerned with keeping their students safe, our primary argument against drug testing was that it simply does not work."
Angell and Wilson came prepared with materials debunking claims of drug testing's efficacy, including the results of the largest study ever conducted on the topic. Done by researchers at Monitoring the Future, the folks who bring you the annual student drug use reports, that study looked at 722 schools and 76,000 students and found no difference in drug use between schools that test and those that don't.
"ONDCP is well aware of this study and has been attacking its methodology for some time now," Angell told DRCNet. "They have a handful of studies of their own they cite as evidence testing works, but those studies are small and have their own methodological problems. With the help of DPA, we prepared a handout that describes the shortcomings of those studies." Those handouts were made available to educators, he said.
As the reformers mingled, they found educators receptive to their message, Angell said. "Ross and I had encouraging conversations with school officials who were opposed to or skeptical of student drug testing," he reported. "At the conclusion of the summit, an official from the Department of Education asked how many folks were thinking of taking advantage of the federal grant money that's been made available for student drug testing. Only five or six people in the room raised their hands."
When Solberg was asked at the end of the day about the arguments of drug testing opponents, she told a journalist she was "concerned," Angell said. "Clearly, our efforts are meaningful when a federal drug official tells the media that she's concerned about us."
In Portland Wednesday, it was more of the same for the ONDCP School Drug Testing Summit. For Erin Hildebrandt of Parents Ending Prohibition, who attended along with three members of Mothers Against Misuse and Abuse, it was at times a "surreal" experience. "This was supposed to be about saving our kids through drug testing, but it was more like an entire industry coming in to market themselves to their potential customers," she told DRCNet. "It was a glaring and obvious attempt to manipulate these people through scare tactics."
And thanks in part to the efforts of activists like Burbank and Hildebrandt, it isn't working that well. Even though Solberg touted the grants program to encourage schools to participate, educators at the conference suggested serious misgivings. "This is a very significant personal rights issue, and I would hope that where the money comes from and how the money arrives would not be an issue," Ron Naso, superintendent of the North Clackamas School District, told the Oregonian in an article published Thursday.
"Our group was able to get some of its questions addressed," said MAMA's Sandee Burbank. "For instance, we were able to ask what happens if a student tests positive, where is the money for treatment? And their answer was that was up to the schools. So, they'll help with the drug testing, but then the community has to come up with the money to deal with the results. Exposing educators to those issues is very helpful from our point of view," she told DRCNet. "We think the money is much better spent by engaging with and empowering our youth, helping them to make better choices."
With active, critical participation from opponents of drug testing, the summits have begun to resemble a real discussion, despite the best efforts of ONDCP. At the least, the visible, vocal opposition has put the drug warriors on notice that their distortions and misrepresentations will not go unchallenged. "We didn't let them get away with it anywhere," said SSDP's Angell.