Bush's Piss Test
by Ari Armstrong
This article originally appeared in the April 29, 2004, edition of Boulder Weekly.
"Colorado has a libertarian streak to it, and we want to keep government out of our lives as much as we can," Senator Steve Johnson (R-Fort Collins) said at an April 8 conference hosted by the drug czar in Denver to promote random drug testing for students.
But. There's always a but. Johnson supports Bush's new program to offer $23 million in grants to schools that implement drug testing. He said new legislation probably is not needed to allow Colorado schools to take the money, but he'll be happy to sponsor such legislation if it'll help the program.
Ironically, the same day as the drug czar's event (Czar Walters couldn't make it Himself, so he left his underlings in charge), Colorado Republicans were falling all over themselves to endorse one of the nation's top recreational-drug manufacturers for U.S. Senate. "Coors on tap," a headline in the Rocky Mountain News quipped.
Johnson said, "Drugs are not a threat because they are illegal, they are illegal because they are a threat." Cute, but misleading. Of course drug abuse is a threat, and that goes for the drug alcohol, too. And from 1919 to 1933, the U.S. Constitution enshrined the prohibition of alcohol because of the threat of alcohol. (Just ask Peter Coors, whose family business was interrupted during this era.)
Yet the prohibition of alcohol was a greater threat to U.S. society than the drug itself was. Prohibition spawned violent underground markets, rising crime, police corruption, toxic and explosive brew labs, and far more dangerous forms of the drug. Thus, contrary to Johnson's zinger, alcohol was a threat precisely because it was illegal.
Today, the same holds for the prohibition of other drugs. The U.S. homicide rate is at least a fourth higher than it would be in the absence of prohibition, estimates economist Jeffrey Miron. In police departments across the nation, we see an increase in militarized tactics, evidence planting and tampering, bribery, outright drug dealing, and other forms of corruption. Drugs are produced dangerously, and the drugs themselves are far more dangerous because of impurities and unknown potency.
Yet, as Mary Ann Solberg, Deputy Director of Drug Policy for the Office of National Drug Control Policy (who works for Czar Walters), told me at the meeting, "Alcohol is legal and it's one of the most abused drugs."
"Then would you support returning to the full prohibition of alcohol?" I asked her. She said no, and I asked her why not. "Drugs are illegal because they're a threat," right? She hemmed and hawed, then finally said, "At this point it's moot." In other words, we all like Pete Coors just fine, even though he manufactures "one of the most abused drugs." Good, upstanding citizen, Johnson's fellow Republican Coors -- "an outstanding public servant," as Governor Owens said of him (according to the News).
And yet I think Solberg, though completely misguided in her endorsement of modern prohibition, is sincerely concerned with the well-being of children. (Solberg's main problem is that she wants to treat all adults as if they were children.) Even though I oppose federal funding of any propaganda campaign, the latest ONDCP ads have a pretty good message: parents should be more involved with their children, and friends shouldn't stand idly by and watch as friends spiral into drug abuse.
I was happy to hear that random drug testing never involves the police. Instead, students who test positive for drug use may face counseling, community service, and loss of extracurricular activity. The program is billed as early intervention, not punishment.
A couple of speakers presented evidence that random drug testing is associated with less drug use. However, that does not mean that drug testing is necessary to curb drug use. Some of the evidence presented suggests drug use can be reduced without testing. It seems that a community culture in which parents, school employees, and student leaders discourage drug use is most important.
Is random drug testing coming to a school near you? In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court approved random drug tests for students in all extracurricular activities. Students in the general population may not be randomly tested, though they can be tested based on "reasonable suspicion." David Evans, Executive Director of the Drug Free Schools Coalition, said Colorado law allows testing at least for athletes, and probably for students in all extracurricular activities.
The rationale for testing "only" students in extracurricular activities is that participation is voluntary. However, parents are still forced to pay for such activities, whether their students participate in them or not.
The more paranoid among us wonder whether this is just a stepping stone to mandatory testing for all students, and then adults, too. (Just because you're paranoid, doesn't mean they're not out to collect your bodily fluids.)
One option I discussed with Evans is to simply allow uppity parents to opt out of random drug testing without losing access to activities. Even better would be to leave this as a family matter. Surely we can pursue "family values" just fine without the "help" of Bush and his czar.