There was a story in USA Today this week (October 2, 2013) about the use of drug testing to prevent substance abuse in colleges. A college in the US tried to perform a drug test on all new students who wanted to attend this educational establishment. This attempt to screen for substance abusers was later deemed unconstitutional, but it did raise some interesting questions.
Is Drug Testing Effective For Preventing Drug Abuse?
It does sound likely that the fear of showing positive during a drug test for university would encourage students to stop using these substances before applying. The problem is this approach is likely to be open to the same type of abuse as speed cameras – individuals will slow down when they know they are there. If the aim is to stop people abusing certain drugs in the run up to university, this could be a very effective (albeit costly) plan, but it is doubtful that this is what those who came up with the plan want.
The other problem with this approach is drug testing for what. It is not practical or possible to test for every drug. What can often happen is that students using a soft drug like cannabis are discovered by these types of tests but those people who are addicted to much stronger drugs go undetected. There is also the problem that new drugs are becoming available every few months, meaning there is no way to test for these.
This type of approach to drug abuse just makes users more imaginative. They are always going to find ways to get around the system; it can even add to the fun to feel they have managed to get away with something.
The Danger of Drug Testing
One of the main dangers of drug testing is that it is a huge waste of resources. There is also the risk that many may change to drugs that are more dangerous to avoid being caught by drug tests. This means that many would be prepared to experiment with the ‘legal highs‘, which have accounted for many deaths in recent years. Drug testing sounds good on paper, but at the end of the day it is just something those in charge do when they want to be seen as doing something.
One of the other problems with this approach is it moves drug users into the category of drug abusers. Some people only try these substances once or twice, but they can be pulled further into addiction once they are stigmatised with the label of a drug abuser.
Effective Options for Dealing with Drug Abuse
There are more effective ways of dealing with drug abuse than these drug tests. The money used on this type of expensive program would be far better spent promoting the benefits of a life without illegal drugs. The fact is the media have helped glamorise the use of these substances, so there needs to be some type of push back against this. Years of research has shown that people tend to be more responsive to positive health promotion than fear and threats. Actions like drug testing may make drug use appear even more glamorous because it reinforces the idea that it is an act of rebellion.
It is important to try different approaches to helping against drug abuse but the efforts by Linn State Technical College in the US is probably going to be a failure. Even if it had not been declared unconstitutional, it is doubtful that it could have succeeded long term. All this program is likely to achieve is to drive the problem further underground where it becomes even harder to deal with.