During the last decade, with encouragement (and financial assistance) from the federal government, the share of school districts that randomly test students for drugs has nearly tripled, from about 5 percent to 14 percent. According to the Supreme Court, such testing is constitutional as a condition for participating in sports and other extracurricular activities, and the logic of these rulings suggests it would also be constitutional if imposed on the entire student body. But is it effective? A new Education Department report (PDF) supplies an answer: not very.

That conclusion is based on a study in which 36 high schools were randomly assigned to a "treatment" group, which meant they began testing students during the 2007-08 school year, or to a "control" group, which meant they delayed drug testing until after the study was completed in the spring of 2008. For advocates of testing, the most impressive finding is that 16 percent of students subject to spot urine checks, when surveyed in 2008, reported using drugs in the previous month, compared to 22 percent of students participating in the same activities at schools that did not have drug testing. Some of this difference may be due to a reduced willingness of students whose urine is under surveillance to be candid about their drug use. In any case, the difference is only six percentage points, although it sounds more impressive if you call it, as supporters of testing surely will, a 27 percent decline in drug use. They also can cite this study as evidence that drug testing does not discourage participation in extracurricular activities.

But here are some other things this study did not find:

Are students who are subject to MRSDT [mandatory random student drug testing] less likely to report that they will use illicit substances in the future than comparable students in high schools without MRSDT?

No, 34 percent of students subject to MRSDT reported that they "definitely will" or "probably will" use substances in the next 12 months, compared with 33 percent of comparable students in schools without MRSDT.

Do students who are subject to MRSDT report different perceptions of the consequences of substance use than comparable students in high schools without MRSDT?

No, on two measures of students' perceptions of the positive and negative consequences of using substances, students subject to MRSDT did not report having different perceptions of the consequences of substance use relative to comparable students in high schools without MRSDT....

Does the MRSDT program have spillover effects on the substance use or other outcomes of students who are not covered by the MRSDT policies?

No, the MRSDT program had no spillover effects. For example, 36 percent of students not covered by the MRSDT policy in treatment schools and 36 percent of comparable students in control schools reported using a substance in the past 30 days.

Does the MRSDT program affect the number of disciplinary incidents reported by schools?

No, the MRSDT program had no impact on school-reported disciplinary incidents. For example, treatment schools reported an average of five instances per 1,000 students of distribution, possession, or use of illegal drugs compared with four such instances in control schools.

Here are the conclusions I draw from this evidence:

1. Teenagers, like adults, are willing to trade their urine for things they value.

2. The threat of losing that benefit deters them, to some extent, from using drugs.

3. That does not mean they have suddenly seen the light about the virtues of a drug-free life, as shown by the fact that they are no more likely to take a negative view of drugs and no less likely to plan on using drugs in the future.

4. Not surprisingly, the plainly goal-oriented abstinence of students participating in extracurricular activities has no modeling effect on other students, who don't see anything to gain from keeping drug metabolites out of their urine.

Most important, there is no evidence that the measured reduction in drug use among students subject to testing has prevented any real-world problems (such as "disciplinary incidents"). If all that testing accomplishes is that 6 percent of football players or glee club members start smoking pot less often, the payoff hardly seems worth the cost in terms of money, effort, and indignity. Worse, these programs train students to go along with the government's arbitrary requirements, sacrifice their privacy on the slightest pretext, and keep their reservations to themselves while secretly maintaining politically incorrect attitudes. These are not the habits of a free society.

[via the Drug War Chronicle]