Education the key to anti-drug culture

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 November, 2010, 12:00am

The results of the voluntary drug-testing trial in Tai Po high schools should be filed under 'inconclusive' along with research into similar exercises conducted overseas. They contain little evidence that the idea has benefits that justify the downside. Instead, the government has put a spin on them to justify extending voluntary testing to all its schools.

After the trial, it conducted a survey of 20,000-odd students, mostly from Tai Po schools, of whom nearly 80 per cent gave the prompted response that drug tests could help build an anti-drug culture in schools. This is despite the failure of the trial to return a single positive test from nearly 2,000 students out of about 2,500 selected at random, who agreed to take tests.

No one is suggesting that the 500-odd who declined to be tested represent a serious drug problem. It is more likely that they and/or their parents share our misgivings about the whole idea of the tests.

The efficacy and integrity of voluntary testing with parental consent remains in question, even when subjects are selected at random. It can push students towards drugs that are more difficult to detect, challenge them to explore ways to make tests invalid and strain relationships and trust between home and school, as well as between parents, teachers and pupils. It also raises questions of privacy rights.

Compulsory testing has rightly been ruled out. But it is worth noting that drug-testing has been found an effective deterrent only when it is mandatory and random. An example is sport, where steroids can enhance strength and endurance. When it became a question for athletes of cheating or losing, and the credibility of even the Olympic Games was at stake, the authorities had no choice but to introduce random mandatory tests. We are hardly facing a comparable problem, but just as voluntary testing of sport cheats would have been a joke, it could have serious drawbacks in our schools. The negatives and loopholes outweigh any benefits.

The government's intentions are good. Its commitment to the war on drugs, particularly among the young, is to be applauded. An anti-drug culture in schools needs to be engendered, since student-driven resistance would be the strongest defence.

The government is to provide funds for schools to conduct voluntary tests, which it sees as important as part of a basket of measures to fight youth drug abuse. But they are an extra-curricular elective with possible ethical, legal and privacy implications. Their worth is diminished by exercise of the right not to take part, which could be based on nothing more than a parent's belief that a school has no business meddling in family business. The government is treading a delicate line between respect for values and sensitivity to community concerns about drugs.

Statistics and surveys on youth drug abuse paint an uncertain picture. The figures do not seem alarming relative to overseas data, although they do not reflect the use of so-called party drugs, which young people tend to equate with adult abuse of tobacco and alcohol.

The most important contribution schools can make to the war on drugs is what they do best - education. On moral issues they have a responsibility to partner with parents, and reinforce family values. Communication and understanding between parents, schools and children - and the trust that this engenders - are indispensable to a deep-rooted anti-drug culture. A flawed, potentially divisive drug-testing regime does nothing for that relationship.