NZ Herald: Editorial: "Random School Drug Tests the Wrong Tactic in War on P"

Editorial: Random school drug tests the wrong tactic in war on P

Sunday June 01, 2008

The idea of random drug testing in schools should not be discounted simply because it has been suggested by a private consultant. It should be discounted because it is a bad idea.

Mike Sabin, a former drug squad detective, left the police to set up MethCon Group, a specialist consultancy which provides "awareness presentations for students" on the dangers of methamphetamine, more commonly known as P.

Random testing "to provide a deterrent and enable early intervention for young abusers" was one of 21 recommendations he made to Parliament's law and order select committee this week in a report which he said would turn the tide on what he called "our losing battle against methamphetamine".

His call will doubtless attract more support than it deserves on its own merits because it plugs into a profound public anxiety about the contribution the highly addictive drug is making to crime figures. P use is regularly a factor in serious crime because people under its influence are frequently unpredictable, paranoid and violent.

There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that its use is increasing although such evidence is wildly unreliable. But it is beyond dispute that it is a deep-rooted and serious social problem.

Many practical arguments militate against the idea of random drug testing in schools. Tests would be logistically difficult - not least because the collection of a urine sample must be witnessed - and would further burden hard-pressed school administrations. They are expensive and far from 100 per cent reliable.

It's worth wondering, too, what such tests would tell us. We may be fighting a losing battle with amphetamine but most observers agree the marijuana battle has been lost - or won, depending on your point of view. Yet most drug-testing regimes would detect weeks-old traces of marijuana, while P use more than 72 hours before testing would not be picked up. A testing regime that allows drug use to be disguised by a spot of judicious absenteeism risks being seen as a bit of a joke.

Worst, all who returned positive test results would be labelled: for some, it would be a badge of honour; for others, it would mean that a single indiscretion or occasional flirtation saw them classified with those who have serious drug problems.

Far more significant is the impact such a regime would have on the attitudes students have to their schools, their schooling and their teachers. By what logic should teachers be assigned the role, even if it is only in an ancillary capacity, of presenting their pupils for drug testing? The only reason schools make suitable testing grounds is that the population required for testing is already assembled - and that is no reason at all. It would be a gross, not to say grotesque, abuse of an educational relationship to hijack it for the purposes of advancing a health or law-enforcement aim.

The issue of drug testing in workplaces, where safety considerations apply, is less clear-cut. It can and should be dealt with in contract negotiations. Likewise, random breath-testing of drivers is a separate matter. It efficacy may be open to question, but the idea that we are under an obligation to be sober behind the wheel is not.

School pupils, however, are under contract to learn and schools to teach them. It is unacceptable for them to be subjected to a testing process of questionable value to advance quite another agenda.