Should Random Drug Testing Be Legalized In Schools?

Drug testing has been a contentious issue for schools for years by now.  Whether scheduled or random, conducting drug tests on adolescents has drawn a mixed response from a wide spectrum of public discourse.

Whether in public or private schools, the use of illicit drugs has been a scar on the states and the school administration in the United States. Its far-reaching medical and psychosocial repercussions have caused a sense of urgency amongst the concerned authorities to address and resolve the growing crisis.

Random Drug Testing

Random drug testing (also known as “spot” drug testing) has been sending shivers down the spines of drug users. In fact, it is a strong deterrent for the users as it happens without any intimation. Most often, they are caught off guard as they do not get the chance to cheat.

Whether in schools, the workplace or any other area, conducting drug tests set a deterrent for the users and helps create a healthy and conducive environment for education.  However, if executed without prior information, drug tests can put the suspected users in a tight spot.

Whether it should happen within schools or not, is debatable, and the conflicting discourse pursues forward in this article.

Introduction: A Peep Into The History

In 1995, the US Supreme Court legalized school-based drug testing for sports students. Post seven years, the same court extended the purview to students participating in other extracurricular activities to discipline and improve the performance of the students.

Later in 2003, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy publication What You Need to Know About Drug Testing in Schools1 stated that “the expectation that they may be tested for drugs is enough to make some students stop using drugs—and others never to start in the first place.”

The supporters for random drug testing argue that it will trigger fears among the drug users of being caught and facing severe action or punishment. Thus, this decision will prevent and further discourage drug use amongst adolescents. Any student tested positive would be referred to drug education programs and counseling for complete rehabilitation.

On the contrary, the opponents state that it can spoil the school environment and that it breaches the students’ right to protect their privacy. Also, any human mistake or untrained execution of school-based drug testing can result in misinterpretation, and ensue flawed conclusions which can be detrimental for the career of sports students. The unfair stigma on the bright and young students could derail their education and career before they even get a proper start.

Let’s begin an insightful discussion  

How Random or Suspicion-less Drug Testing Helps

Random drug testing has multifaceted aspects, which if executed with tact can tighten the entire flawed drug management system in schools. For instance, many drug addict adolescents, after being drug tested, can be put under therapeutic monitoring where they will receive support for their current treatment.

Therapeutic monitoring involves the determination of drug concentrations in plasma, serum or blood. This vital information helps in determining the independent dosage in order to safely manage its proportion within a permissible target range.

Whilst such drug testing programs have successfully achieved its intended purpose amongst adults, the impact on adolescents is yet to be scientifically configured. When coupled with contingency management therapies, every individual with a negative drug test result is rewarded with positive reinforcement to encourage others.

There have been academic studies pursued over school-based drug testing but they have been largely inconclusive, and hence leave a lot of room for advanced researches.

As per a drug testing program adopted, the results vary from no change2 to showing an only minor change in the rate of drug use within a selected panel comprising of school students, who willingly took part in the study. 3

Till now, no single study has successfully managed to provide the nature of the relationship between drug testing and student attitude when they participate in drug testing programs. Thus, it is hard to determine if enforcing random drug testing would have any long term effects on the students.

Hurdles When It Comes To Pursuing Random Drug Testing In Schools

  1. Most published studies involving therapeutic drug testing recommend either weekly or more frequent testing to expect a deterrent effect on adolescents. If performed with high-frequency, drug testing will turn out to be an expensive and inconvenient proposition for most schools. However, the perks that come along with less frequent drug testing are yet to be determined. 4

As per a report cosponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Drug Policy Alliance, typical school drug testing programs cost nearly $24 per test or $42 per student per year. In the same report, the rate of positive drug test results was found to be low, 5 which makes cost incurred per positive drug test at a higher range.

  1. School administration needs medical supervision and proper training to conduct drug testing procedures to render reliable results. Typically, a 6 panel drug test can be used to determine the possibility of commonly used drugs. Adolescents, if uninformed about on the spot drug testing, may attempt to subvert the results by submitting urine sample of another individual or diluting his own or by mixing some adulterant agent to get the negative results.

There are new herbal and synthetic products with inherent psychoactive properties that are enticing adolescents.6 However, it may be some time before drug screening tests can be introduced to beat such combative substances or products.

  1. Drug testing amongst adolescents must adhere to accurate standards, lest they threaten the integrity of the entire process and put a huge question mark on the authenticity of the results. It includes seeking the complete medical history of the student to confirm the drug testing results.

However, some students and parents may refuse to share their personal medical information, citing their right of confidentiality. In this scenario, the schools stand in direct conflict of an individual’s right to maintain privacy and the school’s need for this information to pursue their drug testing policy.

  1. The interpretation of drug tests must be handled under the supervision of trained clinicians or in medical labs only. As per studies, even practicing pediatricians can falter to make the right interpretation of the drug testing results if not familiar with the testing.

Generally, the information of drug testing results must be intimated to the predetermined school officials who can subsequently share with the students and their parents. Make sure the drug testing results are not publicized within the school which results in unintended consequences for the adolescents.

  1. Schools need to have clarity on the protocols if drug test results come positive. The core intent behind school-based drug testing has been to encourage timely medical intervention and discourage others. Merely imposing severe punitive measures such as suspension may or may not have the desired impact on other students.


Although school-based drug testing programs can be associated with modest short-term decreases in psychoactive substance use, long-term behavioral changes have not been scientifically documented.

More studies are needed to compare the influence of school-based drug testing programs with other drug-prevention programs to determine a proper resolution.

Whilst the academic fraternity would pursue its own objectives, drug use among students continues to be a health crisis wherein schools have an important role to play in containing the problem.

There is possibly no clear answer for parents as to whether random drug testing should or should not be done to their children in schools. They have legitimate concerns, and their side of the argument must be documented as and when schools make up their minds to shape the random drug testing policies.

The biggest takeaway from the entire scenario is that a consensus has not been reached as to whether random drug testing should be conducted in schools.

However, whenever it happens, the school-based drug testing programs must be made in strict adherence to the state laws while registering the valid privacy concerns of students and parents.

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  1. Office of National Drug Control Policy.What You Need to Know About Drug Testing in Schools.Washington, DC: Office of National Drug Control Policy; 2002
  2. Yamaguchi R, Johnston LD, O’Malley PM. The relationship between student illicit drug use and school drug-testing policies. J Sch Health. 2003; 73(4):159–164pmid:12728615.
  3. Goldberg L, Elliot DL, MacKinnon DP, et al. Drug testing athletes to prevent substance abuse: background and pilot study results of the SATURN (Student Athlete Testing Using Random Notification) study. J Adolesc Health. 2003;32(1):16–25pmid:12507797
  4. Stanger C, Budney AJ, Kamon JL, Thostensen J. A randomized trial of contingency management for adolescent marijuana abuse and dependence. Drug Alcohol Depend. 2009; 105(3):240–247pmid:19717250.
  5. James-Burdumy S, Goesling B, Deke J, Einspruch E, Silverberg M. The Effectiveness of Mandatory-Random Student Drug Testing. Washington, DC: US Department of Education Institute of Education Sciences; 2010.
  6. Boyer EW, Shannon M, Hibberd PL. Websites with misinformation about illicit drugs. N Engl J Med.2001;345(6):469–471pmid:11496870.
  7. Levy S, Harris SK, Sherritt L, Angulo M, Knight JR. Drug testing of adolescents in ambulatory medicine: physician practices and knowledge. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2006;160(2):146–150pmid:16461869

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