Does Drug Testing Affect How Teens Look at Drug Abuse?

After several years of decline in the rates of teen drug and alcohol use, there appears to be a slight increase in abuse by teens. Finding the most effective and cost-friendly way to prevent drug and alcohol use is an ongoing concern, and one that takes on heightened importance as the substances kids are using become ever more potent and dangerous.

Some have suggested greater educational efforts to help young people understand how addictions develop and drugs and alcohol affect the body. Others have suggested implementing random student drug testing measures.

Random drug testing is costly, so before expanding such a measure further across the nation a few studies were needed to evaluate testing’s effectiveness. Some studies focused on random testing in high schools and others on earlier testing during middle school. Here is what those studies revealed.

Right now around 14 percent of U.S. high schools use random student drug testing (RSDT) in some form. For most high schools, these tests are reserved only for students wanting to participate in school-sponsored activities like sports teams or clubs which require testing.

To get an idea of how well this strategy works at halting drug and alcohol use, the U.S. Department of Education together with the RMC Research Corporation looked at 36 high schools around the country to judge the effectiveness of random testing. The researchers looked at the stated objectives of random testing and then checked to see how well those objectives were being met.

The two stated objectives of RSDT are:

  1. Identify any students with drug abuse and get them the appropriate help and services
  2. Stop drug/alcohol use from starting in the first place.

What the Department of Education found:

  1. When RSDT is in place, student populations have fewer problems with drug use compared to schools without RSDT, but only among those required to be tested. It is impossible to say what the drug and alcohol use levels are among students not taking part in school-sponsored activities.
  2. There is no way to show that using RSDT inhibits plans to use drugs or alcohol sometime in the future (when the student is not participating in sports or school clubs).
  3. Implementing RSDT does not keep kids from participation in school activities.

What if RSDT were administered before high school, say in middle school? A New Jersey study looked at how using RSDT in middle schools affected later rates of drug and alcohol use. The study, which focused on 6-8th graders and lasted six years, was conducted by Fairleigh Dickinson University in cooperation with the Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey.

The researchers found that just one percent of students in 8th grade reported having ever used illegal drugs and 14 percent reported having consumed alcohol (apart from condoned uses such as religious observances). Among those students randomly tested, six percent reported having consumed alcohol at some point in their lifetime.

The NJ study reported that use of drugs and alcohol hits a high water mark around 11th grade when many students have a job and a driver’s license. Nonetheless, the study found that rates of drug and alcohol use were smaller among 11th graders who had been randomly tested for drugs when they were younger. This, researchers say, is because random drug testing even of a small part of the student population changes the entire school environment.

The U.S. Department of Education study found positive but inconclusive results gained from RSDT during high school, but the NJ study was able to show conclusively that RSDT did, in fact, curb later drug and alcohol use. Thus, RSDT does seem to be an effective preventive measure. The cost of expanding these measures, however, is considerable and more studies may be needed before school districts are ready to absorb the expense.