The people forcing Oregon teenagers to participate in drug research published their early data this week, and the results were hardly shocking: A school that randomly demands urine samples from students appears to have a lower rate of drug use than a school that doesn’t. Head researcher Dr. Linn Goldberg is already using the results as proof that drug testing likely “works.” We question that logic, as well as the judgment of school leaders who require students to be laboratory rats in order to participate in school activities.
The research should be permanently suspended.
Oregon Health & Science University received a three-year, $3.6 million federal grant in 2000 to study whether random urine testing of student athletes reduces drug use in high schools. Researchers from OHSU signed up 13 Oregon school districts to participate, some as experimental schools and some as control schools. Punishment for resistance was steep: Getting thrown off the team.
Students and parents in some communities protested, saying the forced testing was humiliating and invasive. But the OHSU researchers marched onward, using a U.S. Supreme Court ruling about student drug testing as the only consent they needed.
Then the federal Office of Human Research Protection intervened. This fall, the watchdog agency said the study violated federal laws on human research by being involuntary and potentially coercive. The agency also noted that financial incentives could cloud school leaders’ judgment.
The research was suspended. It should stay that way.
Furthermore, Oregon school districts that drug-test their students—or are considering drug testing—should consider the other early finding from the study. Over time, surveys showed that students at schools with drug testing developed a more positive view about drugs, and they were more likely to expect higher rates of drug use among their classmates.
In other words, drug testing may be a short-term deterrent—but it also may help create a long-term perception that drug use is “normal.”
OHSU is trying to alter the drug-testing protocols to comply with federal standards about research on human subjects. We doubt that is possible without invalidating the data. More importantly, however, we think school districts should find more honorable ways to reduce drug use among teenagers.
Forced drug testing may be expedient, and it’s easy for paid researchers or worried school leaders to think the ends justify the means. Many private employers require pre-employment drug screening, including The Oregonian, so it’s easy for adults to shrug off the implications of forcing children in school to pee on demand for strangers.
But let’s not forget what this is. The government is forcing kids to participate in invasive research in order to participate in an educational activity—which is what sports are. Even if it works, it isn’t educational.
And it sure ain’t science.