A Waste of Pee?

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Slate links to an interesting 2003 study by University of Michigan researchers indicating that random testing of high school students for drug use has essentially no effect on the rate of student drug use.

I'll confess some surprise at these results. What I'd have expected is a mild net reduction in drug use, a fair amount of countermeasure deployment (Goldenseal, that sort of thing) and, most perversely, a gradual shift away from drugs like marijuana, which remains in the body for weeks, and toward drugs like cocaine, which can only be detected for a few days.

In any event, once we add to the objection that such testing programs are invasive and degrading the fact that they don't even appear to work, precisely what rationalization is left? Presumably whatever jollies administrators get from the prospect of taut adolescent bodies urinating on command.

Update: Jane Galt is skeptical about the idea that in the face of random drug tests, students might shift their drug consumption from marijuana to cocaine:

I can't see my (high-school) self saying "You know, I'd really like to get all my friends into my basement and smoke some dope and get all giggly and watch The Wall . . . but with these random drug tests, I guess we'd better spend eight times as much on cocaine and go out to a club where we can talk real fast and listen to our hearts race."

In the short term, of course, she's mostly got a point: Hippie kids who like dope smoking are unlikely to abruptly switch to uppers. But when I said a "gradual shift," I was thinking on the scale of a few years, not a few months. Consider: When I was in high school, plenty of kids smoked pot, but there was, relatively speaking, not very much cocaine use—which there had been in the late '80s. When I came back to visit my old journalism advisor a few years after graduating, I learned that there was once again a burgeoning cocaine scene. I'm not sure exactly what cultural or economic or other factors prompted the shift, but what's worth noting is that the least plausible hypothesis is that the new cohort of students all just had a greater intrinsic preference for coke than pot, while previous cohorts had the opposite preference. Especially in high school, drugs are schelling points: While obviously people will have preferences for the effects of one drug or another, what's more important in many cases is that it's something transgressive that cliques can all do together. For any particular group of friends with an equilibrium drug already chosen, or for a particular person with settled tastes, consumption choices may be relatively inelastic—but over time, I wouldn't be surprised if something like random testing were able to shift the most common equilibrium drug.

NEXT: The Cat in the Cradle Doesn't Fall Far From the Tree?, or, Advances in Behavioral Science

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  1. Presumably whatever jollies administrators get from the prospect of taut adolescent bodies urinating on command.

    As one who believes that modern people are no more immune to strange ideas, which spring from the subconscious rather than from reason, than were medieval folks, I think that’s a fair summary.
    Drug testing is a ritual, a display of power from one side, requiring a demonstration of purity from the other side.

  2. This might be an urban legend, but I heard if you put a pube in the urine sample it screws up the test and negates the results.

    I tried this once and I’m pretty sure it worked, although they still lied to me at first and told me the test came back positive to see what I would confess. They did manage to trick me into admitting that I tried pot once (actually, I tried it once a whole bunch of times and frequently), but they got no other confession out of me. It was later that I learned they had lied that the results were positive when, in fact, they weren’t. F. Le Mur is right: they enjoy wielding their so-called power.

  3. In any event, once we add to the objection that such testing programs are invasive and degrading the fact that they don’t even appear to work, precisely what rationalization is left?

    As any parent who has dealt with the Publik Skools can attest, Educrats are big on symbolic gestures such as drug testing. It’s unjust, it’s ineffective, and it’s cruel, but it sure makes them look good.

    Ditto for Zero Tolerance.

    But then this is what happens when Job Security becomes more important than Educating Children.

  4. I had to wee in a cup for a job once. Was I flying 767s? No. Captaining an oil tanker? No.

    My job consisted of being in a cubicle fooling around with a computer. It only made sense as a sort of ritual performance.

  5. Having worked in a public high school for 7 years, I can assure you that it is not the “it sure makes them look good” factor that’s the attraction.
    It is the “unjust and cruel”, which seems to be the major perk most public school teachers milk for everything it’s worth.

    hugs,
    Shirley Knott

  6. It wasn’t too hard to figure out why this wasn’t going to work. Because we still have a Fourth Amendment, they can’t throw a kid in jail for testing positive. All they can do is bar him from extra circicular activities. The kids who do drugs generally don’t participate in those activities and therefore are uneffected by the policy. In addition, unless the tests are very frequent and unannounced, they would not be too hard to beat. These are adolescents who have hugely fast matabolisms and are going to metabolize the drugs very quickly. If the tests are announced, you don’t have to be a genius to stop using, drink lots of water and work out in the couple of weeks before the test. They might have caught a few chronic dope smoking fat kids, but that is about it.

  7. Goldenseal, that sort of thing

    I had cause to ingest goldenseal once. Seems to have done the trick. But what I found interesting and rather astounding was the tagline on the bottle: “Superior protection when you need it most.” Wink wink, nod nod.

  8. “Superior protection when you need it most.” Wink wink, nod nod.

    Ha ha! Goldenseal worked for me, too.

  9. I never did any drugs in high school (mainly because I was rather unpopular back then, so no one would give me any), but nonetheless it’s a damned good thing they didn’t have drug testing in those days, because I KNOW that, with my personality, the morning of the drug test I would have consumed every imaginable legal substance I could find that would result in a false positive. Tonic water with poppy seeds used to wash down a couple of Advils and aspirins. . . mmm-mmm good.

  10. My tinfoil hat seems to think there is a lot of money in the drug-testing industry, and there is some sort of continuous feeding cycle between them and the insurance industry.

    If you want the facts, just follow the greenbacks..

  11. Mr. Nice Guy,

    I have no doubt you are probably on to something. I would guess that there are lots of salesman who work for drug testing companies out giving their best “trouble right here in River City” routine to school boards all over America.

  12. All they can do is bar him from extra circicular activities. The kids who do drugs generally don’t participate in those activities and therefore are uneffected by the policy.

    Random drug testing would have decimated the debate team at my high school.

  13. The research results aren’t that surprising to me. When have teenagers ever been the most rational of actors who would think ahead when confronted with some imminent doobage? The whole ’cause-and-effect’ thing is somewhat sketchy when you’re that age, as I’m sure most of us found out firsthand.

  14. A lot of schools issue photo IDs, which the students are required to have on them at all times (the place where I taught did this); since going to school is a legal requirement, this makes students the first group of American civilians required by law to carry and show ID on demand. And now more and more schools are making drug testing a requirement, and since school is still mandatory you’ve got students becoming the first class of citizens, not accused of any crime, who are required by the government (as opposed to a potential employer) to take these tests.

    Feh. This has nothing to do with safety; it’s all just a scam to get the next generation of American citizens more accustomed to living with far less civil liberties.

    I feel so sorry for kids today.

  15. What the fuck high school did you go to where there could actually be a “cocaine scene”, the High School for Rich and Wasted Trust Fund Rats? Seriously, blow was so expensive when I was in high school that I was literally stunned to see it at a party once – at a rich guy’s house, go figure. It also scared the shit out of me, so I never tried it.

  16. No one has said anything here about it but for reasons I can’t figure out cocaine seems to be making a comeback. I go to a large state college and I think a lot of people would be suprised at how many and what kind of people are doing it. Also if you haven’t noticed there are a lot of rappers no longer rapping about pot but blow instead. And as far as the thing about people switching from pot to coke because it stays in your system less is just another of lifes great ironies. The drug that isn’t as bad for you is more likely to get you caught and one that is probably the worst for you (booze) is legal.

  17. JOHN suggests: “…all they can do is bar you from extracurriculars if you test positive…”

    SH: Friendly correction.

    One is barred from extracurriculars if either testing positive or refusing to submit to a test.

    However, additional punitive sanctions await those who test positive – including but not limited to expulsion; transfer to an “alternative” campus; suspension; banishment from graduation ceremonies….the lists vary by jurisdiction.

  18. At last, my sickest, lamest, least-loved 1990s fake ad has the whiff of truthiness, baybee.

    http://www.unclaimedmysteries.net/sounds/golden_shower_task_force.mp3

  19. I stand corrected Steve in Clearwater. My mistake for underestimating the oppressive power of these assholes.

  20. Good news is that despite a heavily financed sales pitch from the ONDCP, less than 7% of public schools urine-test without reasonable cause.

  21. When I was in high school in 1980-1983 cocaines was $100/gram and pot was $35/oz. Since this was a rich school in Montgomery County there were many kids who could afford coke and abused the hell out of, while co-exisitng wtih plenty of rich kids who just preferred dope.
    Now you can get a gram of coke for $30 and pot costs $300/oz.
    How did the Federal crackdown on drugs make kids “safer” by making cocaine easier to get?

  22. Side note: Am I apparently the only one capable of enjoying Pink Floyd while perfectly sober?

  23. I think there are a lot people who just like to screw with their phenomenology from time to time. Got weed? Let’s get stoned! Got coke! Fun! Got X? Let’s get dancey and cozy! Etc. For those people, if the price of weed goes up, they may indeed do more coke, if it’s around.

  24. Random drug testing would have decimated the debate team at my high school.

    Then you’d have had exactly a 90% chance of survival.

  25. Seriously, blow was so expensive when I was in high school that I was literally stunned to see it at a party once – at a rich guy’s house, go figure.

    That was part of the reason I could never get hooked. I was too poor to!

  26. My tinfoil hat seems to think there is a lot of money in the drug-testing industry, and there is some sort of continuous feeding cycle between them and the insurance industry.

    I know a guy (a Democrat activist type) who makes a living at it, and yeah, it’s a scam, mostly with third-party payers.

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