3 problems with Scott Dawson’s mandatory drug test proposal
Republican candidate for governor Scott Dawson discussed his priority of instituting mandatory drug testing at all Alabama public schools in a recent interview with John Sharp of AL.com.
“It is because I’m tired of drug addiction holding a generation hostage,” Dawson told Sharp. “Drug addiction doesn’t know a gender, a race, a socioeconomic status.”
Dawson introduces his policy idea on his campaign website: “Imagine a future where we not only reduce teenage drug use, but eradicate it. Imagine a future where young adults aren’t deep in drug addiction before they are able to establish themselves in life. Imagine a future where our prisons have far fewer young people locked up for drug use or associated crimes.”
Drug use is a very bad thing, especially among young people, but here are a few things I find problematic about the way Dawson has framed the issue of substance use and his policy:
1. Drug use and drug addiction are not the same thing.
Dawson makes no apparent distinction between the two, and it’s really important to parse the difference, especially if we’re comparing kids who make mistakes to hardened and hooked drug users.
Nationally, high school students who reported using marijuana one or more times in their lifetime was an average of 39 percent in 2015, according to the CDC. Students who reported using cocaine or pain pills were 5 percent, in 2015 and 2014 respectively.
These are striking numbers, particularly the marijuana-use number, but could indicate a far less grave situation than we might think. There is no distinction in that data point between the kid who uses drugs every week and the one who smoked once and utterly hated it, or took a pill and regretted it, or got into trouble and vowed to never do it again.
The point is that high school kids experiment. That’s not a justification of their behavior but a reality distinct from habitual use or addiction that must be considered when determining a justification for mandatory drug tests.
Perhaps Dawson’s goal in mandatory drug tests is to discourage overall recreational use, which might, in turn, discourage the development of addictions. That might work, I don’t know, but it’s important to make the key distinctions between use and addiction.
2. The proposal to only test those students involved in extracurricular activities seems rather arbitrary and would exclude the testing of a key demographic.
The students who used or who were at least rumored to use drugs most frequently in high school were not athletes or club presidents. This observation is based entirely on my own high school experience (I’m only four years removed).
Having said that, Dawson’s criterion would reach a large number of students because “extracurricular” includes sports, bands, clubs, and a lot of students are involved in those types of activities. Again, the tests may work.
3. Alcohol is the most threatening substance of all to young people, something drug tests can’t address.
The most recent data available from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services demonstrates that between 2010 and 2014, Alabama youth aged 12-17 were first introduced to alcohol at an average rate more than twice the rate of marijuana and more than three times the rate of psychotherapeutic drugs.
Though obtaining illicit drugs has become fairly easy, there are even fewer structural barriers to obtaining alcohol than drugs. Moreover, teen alcohol use is responsible for some 4,700 deaths each year, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving. That amounts to more teen alcohol-related deaths than deaths related to teen use of all illicit drugs combined.
Mitigating recreational drug use among young people is a noble public safety goal and finding help for those truly addicted to substances is even more noble. Drug tests may help to accomplish both, but it’s important to understand what their limits would be.
@jeremywbeaman is a contributing writer for Yellowhammer News