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Drug Testing of Adolescents Could Backfire

Alcoholism & Drug Abuse Weekly By Peter Provet, Ph.D.

Earlier this summer, the United States Supreme Court ruled that broad-based drug testing in public schools is constitutional. When the justices reached this momentous decision, most of the nation’s school kids were already long-gone from the classroom for the summer vacation.

But now the kids are back in school and vigorous debate must take place regarding the practical wisdom of this policy and its implementation. Because, while sound social policy must be constitutional, making a policy constitutional does not automatically ensure it is sound. Ultimately, the public must determine the utility of this policy, taking into account its impact and results in school districts around the country.

It is easy to understand the appeal of drug testing among constituencies who interact with adolescents – schools, law enforcement, business and community leaders, and parents. Despite years of education and prevention efforts, adolescent drug and alcohol use is still stubbornly high. If we couldn’t talk or counsel our way out of an adolescent drug epidemic, the argument goes, perhaps we can “arrest” our way out of it.

But the “get tough” approach of catching kids using drugs and then letting them suffer the consequences is not the panacea the Supreme Court, or other advocates of testing, hope it is. An omnipresent threat of severe consequences (e.g., school expulsion, arrest) has not been proven to act as a powerful deterrent.

While compelling on some superficial level, and perhaps applicable to a minority of kids, this approach is founded upon neither good science nor a developmental understanding of adolescence.

Over the past 20 years much has been learned about the nature of drug abuse and addiction, particularly what drives this intractable social problem. While teen drug abuse may begin within a context of experimentation and peer pressure, those who go on to abuse with some regularity – presumably the targets of this testing policy – do so to self-medicate difficult, if not painful, internal states and escape from pressing educational, social, and familial problems. Principally, because the positive effects of usage are so fleeting, the drug is used with greater intensity and frequency.

Contrary to some public opinon, persistent adolescent drug use is not simply the result of a desire to get high and have fun. It is more an attempt to escape to another world. The threat to take the drug away, without any clear alternative, is to force the child to face his or her problems without support or replacement of an escape route. And of course, there is no easy substitution for rigorous drug treatment that helps the teenager, within a positive peer group, to feel better about himself and discover his potential for success, achievement, and happiness.

Likewise, the threat of drug testing may have a paradoxical effect on the adolescent. From a psychological perspective, adolescence is a developmental period rooted in, and defined by, rebellion. Adolescence is a critical period of self-discovery where the individual begins to form a firmer self-identity by differentiating himself from others and what they believe. Rebelling against authority is, for kids, the easiest, clearest rout to greater self-awareness.

Adolescents are naturally intolerant of contradiction and paradox in adult behavior and readily read hypocrisy into other’s motives. Driven by a mix of idealism and self-aggrandizement, they will typically confront perceived duplicity head on.

Using drug testing as a deterrent could, therefore, backfire because adolescents may well perceive it to be a blanket indictment of them and their friends, and a heavy-handed attempt by adults to “police” their behavior – to control them from a generational distance. Many kids’ reactions will be to challenge the architects of the system, and parents and school officials should brace themselves for questions regarding their own use, present and past, of drugs and alcohol.

Prohibition, particularly when there is some inherent appeal to that which is prohibited (e.g., alcohol, drugs, sex), is typically seen by adolescents as a challenge to engage in the forbidden behavior. This judicial opinion, therefore, if widely implemented, could have the opposite effect of its intent, and propel kids to seek creative means to avoid “testing positive,” as the generational divide between adults and adolescents becomes deeper and more impenetrable.

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