The harms of drug testing in schools
Understandably, it is the extrajudicial killings that receive the most attention in the government’s punitive antidrug campaign. Whether we give weight to independent estimates placing the deaths north of 20,000 or accept Philippine National Police reports of “only” 4,000, there is no doubt that, someday, a future generation of Filipinos will remember Duterte primarily for his hypocritical “drug war” and its grave human toll.
Beyond the killings, however, the government’s drug policies are harming society in many other ways. One policy that is particularly detrimental to young people is mandatory drug testing in schools. Perhaps, unlike the misguided attempt to lower the age of criminal liability from 15 to 9, drug testing does not immediately register as a problematic measure, but the reality points to the contrary.
In the first place, it can endanger students’ lives. From civil society organizations, I hear reports of local government officials exerting pressure on schools to divulge the names of students who test positive — and students who test positive ending up on drug watch lists. Despite Department of Education (DepEd) and Commission on Higher Education (CHEd) policies that call for confirmatory tests and, in any case, confidentiality, the fate that has befallen those in these watch lists should give us pause. It’s also worth noting that urine drug tests can yield false positives (see Moeller et al., 2017); those who test positive may never have even used drugs at all.
Secondly, it can alienate students and keep them away from school. Fearful of the consequences of testing positive, some students have been reported to skip classes or drop out of school entirely if they think there’s going to be a drug test — for the reasons mentioned above. If the goal is to help young people, the result of drug tests is the exact opposite: further exclusion from educational opportunities and a supportive environment.
Thirdly, drug tests are an enormous waste of labor, finances and time. In my own fieldwork, I have heard many teachers lament that they are made to do all kinds of things — from administering deworming programs to staffing classrooms-turned-evacuation centers. This drug testing will only add to their burden. Moreover, given how many teachers are overworked and underpaid, spending money on drug tests — P2.8 billion, per DepEd’s own estimate — is utterly wasteful, benefiting only those contracted to do the testing, and those who will use it to boost their political capital.
Lastly and crucially, drug testing perpetuates the idea that drugs are an “evil,” and that we must move toward a drug-free society, despite the fact that 90 percent of drug use is nonproblematic. Should we, following the same logic of eliminating psychoactive substances, also test students for alcohol, a drug (albeit legal) that is associated with violence? Or nicotine, a drug that is associated with health risks? There are clear risks and harms associated with drugs, but again, if the goal is to help young people, there are better ways to do so, such as improving counseling services and addressing the reasons why young people use drugs in the first place.
Unfortunately, despite the costs and risks of drug testing and a lack of evidence that it’s even effective, it has persisted as a fixture of our drug policies: Republic Act No. 9165, the law calling for random drug testing in schools, was passed in the time of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, while the National Action Plan for Drug Abuse calling for the same was initiated during the time of Benigno Aquino III. Then and even more so now, drug testing is uncritically accepted, fetishized as if it would exorcise the so-called “drug menace.”
I’m sure some government officials — whether in the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, DepEd, Department of Health or CHEd — know better. I’m also sure many school administrators and local government executives know better. Many of them probably feel the same way I do, but they’re just going along because the administration is all about drugs, and they do not feel they’re in a position to disagree.
Even so, children’s lives and futures are at stake with drug testing, not to mention hard-earned taxpayers’ funds and educators’ precious time. Thus, I urge our public officials to go by the evidence and reject a dangerous, ineffective and wasteful policy.
Follow @gideonlasco on Twitter. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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