Drug testing of secondary school students has recently become the subject of increased public debate, after a number of high profile independent schools have announced that they are examining proposals to introduce the tests.
Regardless of the schools’ motivations, it is clear that drug testing raises a number of complex issues.
Leaving school prematurely reduces a young person’s future life opportunities and intensifies the risk of problematic behaviours, including excessive drug use.
(When schools identify illegal drug use by students they respond with a variety of disciplinary and welfare-oriented measures, including warnings, notification of parents, notification of police, education programs and counselling.)
It is intrusive, infringes on the individual’s right to privacy, and raises a host of legal, technical and ethical matters that are not resolved. It may be discriminatory, inasmuch as it places an obligation on young people that does not apply to adults; It has been criticised because it assumes a lack of trust between school staff and students, and it may reinforce a sense of suspicion and mistrust;
As urine analysis is the preferred method of testing, and the collection of samples must be closely monitored, the process may cause the subject severe shame and embarrassment.
If students are attending school on Monday mornings ‘hungover’ from marijuana use it should be evident from their physical appearance or demeanour. Schools already have procedures for responding to students who are unwell, distracted, or unable to concentrate, whatever the reason.
Cannabis can be detected in urine for up to three weeks after use, so a positive test will not show that the subject used it, or was affected by it, . It is likely that some positive results will reflect the young person’s social life and their education may be disrupted or terminated for behaviour that is unrelated to their attendance or performance at school.
If drug testing ‘captures’ social use and makes problematic what is now unproblematic, the harms caused by drug use may be increased.
The existence of drug testing may lead some vulnerable young people to switch to more exotic drugs they believe are less likely to be tested for or identified, or to use other chemicals as masking agents to evade detection.