WE CHEATED DRUG TESTERS
Of all the goods currently available for sale in the modern playground
- stolen trainers, alcohol, mobile phones - Tony Blair's plans to
introduce drug-testing in schools may well throw up another less
palatable black-market product. "Clean" urine, free from impurities
likely to show up in a drug analysis, looks set to be a highly
sellable commodity for enterprising students in future years.
The prime minister announced this weekend that he wants to follow the
example set by America in deterring drug use among young people
through urine tests. The Bush administration is pointing to an 11%
fall in drug use among students of 15 and upwards in the past two
years. So we now have Blair standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Bush in
the war against child drug abuse.
But Britain is not a complete stranger to the drug-testing of
children. At the sixth-form college I attended, random drug-testing
has been in place for years - the headteacher felt very strongly about
the issue. Being found out would automatically result in expulsion,
even though it was an otherwise liberal school: it provided smoking
areas, and pupils could address teachers by their first names. There,
several hundred 16- to 18-year-olds swore blind they never touched the
bad stuff - and, as in the American schools, both pupils and teachers
happily pointed to their exam results to prove it.
So I, and other ex-pupils of the school, could tell Mr Blair a few
home truths about how we cheated the system. Because the reality
remains that kids who want to take drugs will dedicate hours to
finding and developing a way to make sure they can - and the threat of
drugs tests is unlikely to stop them.
In the early years of the tests being introduced at my school, a
(pretty unpleasant) urine sample racket sprung up. This involved the
"clean" students either giving or selling - depending on the relevant
levels of friendship and poverty - a sample of their own urine to the
drug-takers, who would then transfer it to the sample tube in the
toilet cubicle or when the teacher's back was turned.
This system worked for a while, but eventually the teachers caught on
and enforced a new regime: from then on, all samples had to be passed
while the teacher was watching - as if adolescence isn't bad enough,
without this royally embarrassing addition.
So the pupils had to seek new ways to get around the tests. And the
solution that they settled on is the principle reason why drug-testing
schoolchildren is a seriously misconceived idea: they decided to take
The briefest of internet searches will tell any interested teenager
which drugs stay in your system longest, and are therefore most likely
to show up in a urine test. So cannabis - which would have been most
pupils' relatively harm-free drug of choice - was off the menu for us
because it could stay in your system for up to three weeks. But class
A drugs like LSD and ecstasy had a more transient effect. Pop one on
Friday and - hey presto! - you're clean by Monday. Cocaine, crack and
heroin are even less likely to be detected, passing through the system
in as little as one or two days (depending, of course, on the quantity
One of the success stories cited by the Americans involves students in
rural Autauga County in Alabama, where drug tests showed an 18% drop
in marijuana use in 2002. Sounds impressive - but there is little to
prove that the students haven't just switched their habit to something
Anecdotally, this same effect has been seen in prisons, where drug
tests have been enforced for years and heroin-use, though at
alarmingly high levels, passes through the system undetected or ignored.
There also remains a serious question of just how random these drug
tests turn out to be. Leaving it up to the headteachers - as Blair
proposes - means that picking on "difficult" students is practically
inevitable. At my school, certain pupils (most notably those with poor
grades who were in danger of bringing down the school's league-table
position) found themselves "randomly" picked to take the test five or
six times. Straight-A students, meanwhile, would breeze through two
years of education without ever getting the dreaded call-up.
Many teachers have made it clear that they have no desire to take up
the burden of responsibility where police and social workers fail.
Likewise, children have enough pressures on them without feeling
persecuted by their school heads and pushed into higher-class drugs by
inherently flawed tests. Mr Blair may like to take some lessons in
life before he goes proudly declaring his solution to drug use in the
young. His suggestion is likely to make matters worse.
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