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Controversial Drug Testing Study Yields Mixed Results

A drug testing research project that inspired a class action lawsuit has yielded mixed results. The controversial study was conducted at two public high schools in Oregon during the 1999-2000 school year by researchers at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) in Portland, Oregon, and was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). The study was suspended by the federal Office for Human Research Protection last October over concerns regarding how the questionnaires were handled in classrooms, the randomization of schools and researchers’ involvement in the drug-testing procedure.

In the pilot study, Wahtonka High School in Dalles, Oregon, required that student athletes submit to mandatory, random drug testing to participate in sports. A similar-sized high school in Warrenton, near Astoria, Oregon, had no drug-testing policy. Students at both schools were given questionnaires about drug use and attitudes.

Preliminary results indicate a drop in illicit drug use among drug-tested athletes and an increase in alcohol use. Students reportedly know alcohol is “difficult, if not impossible, to detect 1 day after use.” If drug tests are evaluated in terms of health outcomes (as opposed to cultural norms), the Oregon research suggests they do more harm than good.

Alcohol is the most commonly used drug and the one most closely associated with violent behavior. It takes far more student lives each year than all illegal drugs combined. Marijuana, which has never been shown to cause an overdose death, is the only drug that stays in the human body long enough to make urinalysis an effective deterrent.

Research conducted by Economists Frank Chaloupka and Adit Laixuthai at the University of Illinois at Chicago suggest that when marijuana use goes down, alcohol use goes up, which reportedly results in a net increase in drug-related deaths. Chaloupka and Laizuthia estimate that marijuana decriminalization would reduce youth traffic fatalities by 5.5 per cent, youth drinking rates by eight percent and binge drinking rates by five percent.

Paradoxically, the Oregon study indicated that although self-reported illicit drug use was down among athletes at the tested school, their attitudes toward drug use went in the other direction. The study reports that athletes at the drug-testing schools increasingly viewed drug use as a less risky behavior and said that they believed more students were using drugs.

“These results may mean that athletes in the drug-testing program feel that because their school adopted drug testing as a preventive approach, many kids at their school must be using drugs,” said study coordinator Linn Goldberg, M.D., director of the Division of Health Promotion and Sports Medicine in the OHSU School of Medicine. “Perhaps the combination of more perceived use and the absence of observable harmful effects led to a belief that drug use may not be that bad.” Theoretically, that attitude among student athletes places them into a higher risk category for drug use, especially during summer months when testing is not conducted. In schools where drug-testing was conducted, both athletes and non-athletes developed negative attitudes toward school that increased throughout the year. OHSU has requested a reinstatement of the study.

Posted by A. Shapiro
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