WASHINGTON, March 20 (UPI) -- While silver bullets are called for when battling fictitious werewolves, they offer little help confronting real world issues like adolescent drug use. Nevertheless, the National Drug Control Strategy unveiled by the Bush administration earlier this month contains numerous "silver bullets," the most prominent among them a proposal to spend $25 million to establish random drug testing for high school students.
Despite the administration's claim that mandatory drug testing curbs adolescent drug use, a recent federal study of 76,000 students by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research paints a far different picture.
According to the study's findings, published in the Journal of School Health, there is no difference in the level of illegal drug use between students in schools that test for drugs and those in schools that do not.
"Drug testing of students in schools does not deter use," states a University of Michigan news release summarizing the findings of the four-year study, the first national, large-scale survey ever to assess student drug testing. "At each grade level studied -- 8, 10, and 12 -- the investigators found virtually identical rates of drug use in schools that have drug testing and the schools that do not."
The study's authors concluded, "(The) results suggest that drug testing in schools may not provide the panacea for reducing student drug use that some (including some on the Supreme Court) had hoped."
Despite this poor performance, approximately 20 percent of U.S. secondary schools carry out some form of drug testing among their student populations. If the Bush administration has its way, this percentage will rise dramatically in coming years. But Congress and school administrators would be better advised to abandon the policy all together.
Suspicionless student drug testing is a humiliating, invasive practice that runs contrary the principles of due process. It compels teens to submit evidence against themselves and to forfeit their privacy rights as a necessary requirement for attending school. Rather than presuming our school children innocent of illicit activity -- as statistically, the overwhelming majority of them are -- until proven guilty, this policy presumes them guilty until they prove themselves innocent. Is this truly the message the Bush administration wishes to send to America's young people?
There is also concern that suspending students who test positive for drugs from attending class and/or extracurricular activities -- as most school drug testing policies mandate -- may cause students undue, long-term harm. According to Dr. Howard Taras, chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on School Health: "(Drug) screening may decrease involvement in extracurricular activities among students who regularly use or have once used drugs. Without such engagement in healthy activities, adolescents are more likely to drop out of school, become pregnant, join gangs, pursue substance abuse and engage in other risky behaviors."
Finally, student drug testing does not come cheap.
School officials in Dublin, Ohio, recently jettisoned a $35,000 per year drug testing program because it proved to be anything but cost-efficient. Of the 1,473 students tested, only 11 tested positive for illegal drugs. That's a cost of $3,200 per positive student -- hardly the sort of price tag that can be justified in an era of local and federal fiscal belt-tightening.
Though random student drug testing may sound like a "silver bullet" in the administration's campaign to discourage adolescent drug use, it opens a "Pandora's Box" of practical, ethical and financial questions. Students should not be taught that they must abandon their constitutional liberties at the school door or that they must submit to an invasion of their privacy because some leaders in Washington are willing to write off an entire generation of students as potential criminals in their overzealous "war" on drugs.
(Paul Armentano is a senior policy analyst for the NORML Foundation in Washington.)
(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)