One can clearly understand the frustration of a pediatrician who sees his young patients grow up and get hooked on drugs.
And it’s natural that he’d want to do all he could, even go to extremes, to identify those kids early in their lives and get them the help they need before they become lifelong addicts. It’s a noble goal that all of society should be trying to reach.
But mandatory testing of all school children during their annual school physicals — as proposed by Amsterdam physician Dr. Govind Rao — is not one of the ways society should go about achieving it.
The doctor, who received the St. Mary’s Foundation’s Medical Professional of the Year award earlier this month, thinks the initiative could help make parents aware of their children’s drug use and be the impetus for treatment.
There’s some merit to that theory.
Kids can be sneaky, and identifying a child’s drug use might not be as easy as smelling pot smoke on their clothes or finding a baggie in their sock drawer. Moody, sullen behavior caused by drug use is often dismissed as normal adolescent behavior, even by the most diligent of parents. So exposing kids to drug tests could help provide a clue.
But it’s not that simple.
The major concern, of course, is privacy.
One can argue that if you’re living under your parents’ roof, you’re not entitled to privacy. That might hold up when it comes to your parents reading your diary, but when it comes to an invasive practice like a blood or urine test, the line becomes less clear — even for kids.
There’s also concern that unlike the tests kids routinely take to flag them for diseases and lead poisoning, drug tests can be used for law enforcement purposes.
Even if the test results are provided only to parents, as Dr. Rao proposes, there’s no guarantee police and judges won’t use their power to crack that secrecy when seeking the identity of drug dealers in the name of public safety.
If you believe a privacy law will stop them, we have a bridge to sell you.
The prospect of routinely invading the privacy of individuals without probable cause is not a road society wants to go down. New York City police were forced to stop their practice of randomly stopping and frisking minors for guns and drugs without cause, the premise being that even children have constitutional rights.
Aside from the constitutional and societal reasons, annual tests might not even be very effective at doing what they’re intended to do.
For instance, THC, the active chemical in marijuana, only stays in one’s bloodstream from 4 days for infrequent users to 10 for regular users. All a kid has to do to beat the drug test is refrain from smoking pot for a couple of weeks and he’s likely not to be red-flagged.
What about heroin, now at epidemic levels? That drug can be detected in the bloodstream for even less time, about 12 hours in blood and saliva tests and up to 3 days in urine tests. Again, a sneaky kid will figure this out and beat the test.
Cocaine? In heavy users, the main ingredient, benzoylecgonine, will be undetectable in about 21 days. Alcohol? The minute an alcoholic stops drinking, it can be out of their system within about 80 hours, or a little more than three days.
How much good is an annual drug test going to do for a kid who knows when it’s coming? That’s why athletes and criminals and train engineers and airline pilots undergo random drug tests — to keep them from beating the clock.
Another factor working against the idea is cost. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the average cost of a drug test in the U.S. is $42, which doesn’t include the cost of administering the test, ensuring privacy, cross-checking results against legal drugs and retesting to provide confirmation.
A bill introduced in 2014 by former area state Sen. Cecilia Tkaczyk (S7934) would have required insurance companies to cover the cost of all the testing, without charging deductibles or copays. (The bill didn’t specify which drugs kids would be tested for.) The Senate bill would have tested all kids between the ages of 12 and 18, or about 1.4 million children. That’s a lot of kids and a lot of tests. At a minimum of $42 a test, that’s almost $60 million a year. Could taxpayers afford to do drug tests on all those kids every year, and would it even be cost-effective in stemming the drug epidemic?
Now, if the state wants to offer drug testing and if insurance providers want to cover it, there’s nothing that should stop parents from taking advantage of it as a tool to help them assess whether their children are taking drugs. A state opt-in might actually help parents who don’t have the ability or will to intervene.
Separately from testing, concerned parents need to work with school officials and health professionals to become aware of the signs of drug use in their children and be educated on what they might do to stop it.
There are just so many things wrong with conducting mandatory annual drug tests on kids. Privacy issues. Law enforcement issues. Effectiveness issues.
We need to address the drug problem. But we need to find other another way than this.