Study suggests school drug tests do not deter teens

About 20 percent of the high school in the United States reportedly conduct drug testing. Some schools choose to do it randomly (i.e. sports and clubs), while others target students that bring suspicions of using.

Do drug tests in school deter students from using or experimenting? According to a new study published in January 2014, researchers say no. Instead, they suggest a positive school environment may likely be more effective.

What the study looked at

The study, conducted by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, looked at two strategies frequently used to curb teen use of drugs, testing and promoting “positive climates.” The research consisted of interviewing 361 high school students in various locations across the United States, according to NPR. Questions asked covered topics such as school environments and how the students felt about the testing. One third of the students said their school had a drug testing policy. The researchers followed the students for one year.


Upon evaluating all the data, researchers found there was no evidence that conducting drug tests on students deterred levels of drug experimentation. According to the research findings, the students were “no less likely” than fellow students to try marijuana, alcohol or cigarettes. However, interviews indicated when educational environments had a perceived positivity, students indicated they were 20 percent less likely to experiment with marijuana and 15 percent less to try smoking cigarettes.

“Even though drug testing sounds good, based on the science, it’s not working,” said study author Daniel Romer, Ph.D., of the University of Pennsylvania Annenberg Public Policy Center in Philadelphia, said in a press release announcing the study.

While drug tests for students in sports and clubs might be somewhat of a deterrent, especially if certain drugs are being targeted to find, these teens are not the ones at highest risk of using drugs.

“So as a prevention effort,” Romer added, “school drug testing is kind of wrong-headed.”

The results do not mean that schools these students attended had “positive cultures” as an official program, the author makes it clear this is student perception, not specific policies established. However, he notes, it might be something school decision makers can look into.

And apparently, no matter how “positive” a school environment is perceived, that didn’t seem to have any effect on experimenting with alcohol. Romer seemed to think this is because alcohol is so deeply entwined in culture and that in order for that to be changed, the societal attitudes towards drinking and the marketing alcohol would need to be addressed.

Drug testing in school

Drug testing in high schools is, in general, is a controversial practice. Over the past decade, parents have come together debating the pros and cons, ever since the United States Supreme Court ruled it was acceptable, according to a 2002 New York Times report. In this decision, it was determined schools are allowed to conduct drug tests on students involved in extracurricular activities. An earlier court decision, in 1995, approved test use, but there were few to no parameters, so schools were less inclined to adopt testing policies. However, since that time some schools have been trying the method.

NPR reported this current study supports an earlier 2010 study where researchers found students attending schools that tested for marijuana were more likely to turn to other illicit drugs.

The full research was published in the January 2014 edition of Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs and is titled “Student Drug Testing and Positive School Climates: Testing the Relation Between Two School Characteristics and Drug Use Behavior in a Longitudinal Study.”