Blowing Smoke

Why random drug testing doesn’t reduce student drug use.

Student smoking a joint

Drug testing of the American public has been steadily broadening over the past 20 years, from soldiers to grocery baggers to high-school and middle-school students. In its 2007 budget, the Bush administration asks for $15 million to fund random drug testing of students—if approved, a 50 percent increase over 2006. Officials from the federal drug czar’s office are crisscrossing the country to sell the testing to school districts.

Yet, according to the two major studies that have been conducted on student testing, it doesn’t actually reduce drug use. “Of most importance, drug testing still is found not to be associated with students’ reported illicit drug use—even random testing that potentially subjects the entire student body,” determined the authors of the most recent study.

It seems like common sense that if students are warned they could be caught getting high any day in school, they’d be less likely to risk it. And principals and the drug czar’s office argue that this random chance “gives kids a reason to say no.” But teens are notorious for assuming that nothing bad will happen to them. Sure, some people get caught, but not me. In addition, a student who chooses to do drugs already has more than a random chance of getting caught—adults are everywhere in this world. Someone could see her, smell smoke, see her bloodshot eyes, or wonder what the hell is so funny. And since most schools test only students who do something more than just show up for class—like join an after-school club, park on campus, or play a sport—kids can avoid the activities rather than quit puffing. Testing may not change much more of the equation than that.

Such are the findings of two major studies. The first study, published in early 2003, looked at 76,000 students in eighth, 10th, and 12th grades in hundreds of schools, between the years 1998 and 2001. It was conducted by Ryoko Yamaguchi, Lloyd Johnston, and Patrick O’Malley out of the University of Michigan, which also produces Monitoring the Future, the university’s highly regarded annual survey of student drug use, which is funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and whose numbers the White House regularly cites.

The early 2003 Michigan study compared the rates of drug use, as measured by Monitoring the Future, in schools that did some type of drug testing to schools that did not. The researchers controlled for various demographic differences and found across the board that drug testing was ineffective; there was no statistically significant difference in the number of users at a school that tested for drugs and a similar school that didn’t.

The White House criticized the Michigan study for failing to look at the efficacy of random testing. So, Yamaguchi, Johnston, and O’Malley added the random element and ran their study again, this time adding data for the year 2002. The follow-up study, published later in 2003, tracked 94,000 middle- and high-school students. It reached the same results as its precursor. Even if drug testing is done randomly and without suspicion, it’s not associated with a change in the number of students who use drugs in any category. The Michigan follow-up found one exception: In schools that randomly tested students, 12th-graders were more likely to smoke marijuana.

Results like these would mean budget cuts or death for some government programs. The White House has devised its own rating system, known as the Program Assessment Rating Tool, to help it cull failed initiatives. (These generally turn out to be the type of programs you wouldn’t expect a Republican administration to like, but that’s another story.) In 2002, PART deemed “ineffective” the Safe and Drug Free Schools State Grants program, the umbrella for school drug testing. The Office of Management and Budget, which runs the PART evaluations, writes on its Web site, “The program has failed to demonstrate effectiveness in reducing youth drug use, violence, and crime.” The PART evaluation did not single out drug testing, which is a small part of the overall state grants program. Still, combined with the Michigan studies, what we have here is a bureaucratic pounding. That hasn’t stopped President Bush from sounding an upbeat note. In his 2004 State of the Union, he said, “I proposed new funding to continue our aggressive, community-based strategy to reduce demand for illegal drugs. Drug testing in our schools has proven to be an effective part of this effort.”

Pressed for evidence to support the administration’s bid to increase funds for testing, drug officials challenge the Michigan study’s methodology. Drug czar John Walters has called for “detailed pre- and post-random testing data”—that is, a study of the rate of drug use at a school before a random testing program was initiated and then again afterward. Such a study is currently under way with federal funds, but it comes with a built-in flaw. Drug-use rates are obtained in questionnaires that school administrators give to students. If the administrators are asking students about their drug-use habits while they have the power to randomly test them, how honest can we expect the students to be, no matter what anonymity they’re promised?

Like Walters, the $766 million drug-testing industry isn’t ready to give up on testing students, for which it charges between $14 and $30 a cupful of pee. Melissa Moskal, executive director of the 1,300-member Drug and Alcohol Testing Industry Association, pointed me to a preliminary study that she likes better than Michigan’s and that Walters also frequently references. The study is funded by the Department of Education and produced by the Institute for Behavior and Health, and its lead author is Robert DuPont, a former White House drug official. DuPont is also a partner at Bensinger, DuPont & Associates. DuPont says that Bensinger “doesn’t have anything to do with drug testing.” But the company’s Web site states: “BDA offers a range of products designed to help employers establish and manage workplace drug and alcohol testing programs.”

DuPont’s study, which he calls “descriptive,” chose nine schools that met certain criteria, the first of which was, “The student drug testing program’s apparent success.” The study’s methodology appears to add to the slant. Rather than gathering information from students and analyzing it, DuPont relies on a questionnaire that asks how effective administrators think their random drug-testing program is. He doesn’t claim neutrality. “I can’t quite get the argument that [drug testing] wouldn’t work,” he says. He’s now working on an evaluation of eight schools. The results won’t be ready soon, but let’s venture a prediction: Random drug testing will come out looking good.