Revised May 2017
How do some schools conduct drug testing?
Following models established in the workplace, some schools conduct random drug testing and/or reasonable suspicion/cause testing. This usually involves collecting urine samples to test for drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines, phencyclidine (PCP), and opioids (both heroin and prescription pain relievers).
In random testing, students are selected regardless of their drug use history and may include students required to do a drug test as a condition of participation in an extracurricular activity. In reasonable suspicion/cause testing, a student can be asked to provide a urine sample if the school suspects or has evidence that he or she is using drugs, such as:
- school officials making direct observations
- the student showing physical symptoms of being under the influence or patterns of abnormal or erratic behavior
Why do some schools conduct random drug tests?
Schools adopt random student drug testing to decrease drug misuse and illicit drug use among students. First, they hope random testing will serve as a deterrent and give students a reason to resist peer pressure to take drugs. Secondly, drug testing can identify teens who have started using illicit drugs and would benefit from early intervention, as well as identify those who already have drug problems and need referral to treatment. Using illicit drugs not only interferes with a student's ability to learn, but it can also disrupt the teaching environment, affecting other students as well.
Is random drug testing of students legal?
In June 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court broadened the authority of public schools to test students for illegal drugs. The court ruled to allow random drug tests for all middle and high school students participating in competitive extracurricular activities. The ruling greatly expanded the scope of school drug testing, which previously had been allowed only for student athletes.
Just because the U.S. Supreme Court said student drug testing for adolescents in competitive extracurricular activities is constitutional, does that mean it is legal in my city or state?
A school or school district that is interested in adopting a student drug-testing program should seek legal expertise so that it complies with all federal, state, and local laws. Individual state constitutions may dictate different legal thresholds for allowing student drug testing. Communities interested in starting student drug testing programs should become familiar with the law in their respective states to ensure proper compliance.
If a student tests positive for drugs, should that student face disciplinary consequences?
The primary purpose of drug testing is not to punish students who use illicit drugs but to prevent future illicit drug use and to help students already using become drug-free. If a student tests positive for drugs, schools can respond to the individual situation. If a student tests positive for drug use but has not yet progressed to addiction, the school can require counseling and follow-up testing. For students diagnosed with addiction, parents and a school administrator can refer them to effective drug treatment programs to begin the recovery process.
Why test teenagers at all?
Teens' brains and bodies are still developing, and this makes them especially vulnerable to the harmful effects of drug use. Most teens do not use illicit drugs, but for those who do, it can lead to a wide range of adverse effects on their behavior and health.
Short term: Even a single use of an intoxicating drug can affect a person's judgment and decision-making, resulting in accidents, poor performance in school or sports activities, unplanned risky behavior, and overdose.
Long term: Repeated drug use can lead to serious problems, such as poor academic outcomes, mood changes (depending on the drug: depression, anxiety, paranoia, psychosis), and social or family problems caused or worsened by drugs.
Repeated drug use can also lead to addiction. Studies show that the earlier a teen begins using drugs, the more likely he or she will develop a substance use disorder (SUD). An SUD develops when continued drug use causes issues, such as health problems and failure to meet responsibilities at home, work, or school. An SUD can range from mild to severe, the most severe form being addiction. Conversely, if teens stay away from drugs while in high school, they are less likely to develop an SUD later in life.
For more information about health effects, see our Commonly Abused Drugs Charts.
How many students actually use drugs?
Findings from the 2016 Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey of 8th, 10th, and 12th graders showed that past-year use of illicit drugs other than marijuana is down from recent peaks in all three grades.
Twenty-one percent of 12th graders say that they've used any illicit drug other than marijuana at least once in their lifetime, and about 36 percent reported using marijuana in the last year. Misuse of prescription drugs is also a concern—for example, in 2016, more than 6 percent of high school seniors reported nonmedical use of the prescription stimulant Adderall® in the past year.1 Read more about the MTF survey results in our Monitoring the Future Survey: High School and Youth Trends DrugFacts.
What testing methods are available?
There are several testing methods currently available that use urine, hair, oral fluids, and sweat. These methods vary in cost, reliability, drugs detected, and detection period. Schools can determine their needs and choose the method that best suits their requirements, as long as the testing kits are from a reliable source.
Which drugs can be tested for?
Various testing methods normally test for a "panel" of five to 10 different drugs. A typical drug panel tests for marijuana, cocaine, opioids (including the prescription pain relievers OxyContin® and Vicodin®), amphetamines, and PCP. If a school has a particular problem with other drugs, such as 3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine (MDMA), gamma-hydroxybutyrate (GHB), or appearance- and performance-enhancing drugs (steroids), they can include testing for these drugs as well. It is also possible to screen for synthetic cannabinoids, commonly known as Spice and K2.
What about alcohol?
Alcohol is a drug, and its use is a serious problem among young people. However, alcohol does not remain in the blood long enough for most tests to detect most recent use. Breathalyzers, oral fluid tests, and urine tests can only detect use within the past few hours. The cut-off is usually detection of the presence of alcohol for the equivalent of a blood alcohol content greater than 0.02 percent (20mg/1dL).2 Teens with substance use problems often engage in polydrug use (they use more than one drug), so identifying a problem with an illicit or prescription drug may also suggest an alcohol problem.
How accurate are drug tests? Is there a possibility a test could give a false positive?
The accuracy of drug tests from a certified lab is very high, and confirmation tests can help to rule out any false positives. Usually, samples are divided so that if an initial test is positive, a confirmation test can be conducted. Federal guidelines are in place to ensure accuracy and fairness in drug-testing programs.
Can students "beat" the tests?
Many drug-using students are aware of techniques that supposedly detoxify their systems or mask their drug use. Internet sites give advice on how to dilute urine samples, and there are even companies that sell clean urine or products designed to distort test results. A number of techniques and products are focused on urine tests for marijuana, but masking products are becoming more available for tests on hair, oral fluids, and multiple drugs.
Most of these products do not work, are very costly, and are easily identified in the testing process. Moreover, even if the specific drug is successfully masked, the product itself can be detected, in which case the student using it would become an obvious candidate for additional screening and attention. In fact, some testing programs label a test positive if a masking product is detected.
What has research determined about the utility of random drug tests in schools?
Study findings in this area show mixed results, but researchers generally agree that student drug testing should not be a stand-alone strategy for reducing substance use in students and that school climate (the quality and character of school life) is an important factor for achieving success in drug prevention programs. Because there is not a clear benefit to drug testing in schools, the American Academy of Pediatrics "opposes widespread implementation of drug testing as a means of achieving substance abuse intervention.3 Relevant studies include the following:
- A NIDA-funded study published in 2013 found evidence of lower marijuana use in the presence of school drug testing and evidence of higher use of illicit drugs other than marijuana. Otherwise, the study found no causal relationships between school drug testing and patterns of substance use.4
- A study published in 2013 found that positive school climate was associated with reduced likelihood of marijuana and cigarette initiation and cigarette escalation, and that student drug testing was not associated with changes in the initiation or escalation of substance use. The authors conclude that improving school climates is a promising strategy for preventing student substance use, while testing is a relatively ineffective drug prevention policy.5
- A study published in 2012 found that students subject to mandatory random student drug testing reported less substance use than comparable students in high school without such testing. The study found no impact of random drug testing reported by students not participating in testing on the intention to use substances, the perceived consequences of substance use, participation in activities subject to drug testing, or school connectedness.6
- Results from a study published in 2012 indicate that drug testing is primarily effective at deterring substance use for female students in schools with positive climates. The authors conclude that drug testing should not be implemented as a stand-alone strategy for reducing substance use and that school climate should be considered before implementing drug testing.7
- A NIDA-funded study published in 2007 found that random drug and alcohol testing had no deterrent effects on student athletes for past-month use during any of four follow-up periods. However, in two of four follow-up self-reports, student athletes reduced past-year drug use, and two assessments showed a reduction of drug and alcohol use as well. Because the conflicting findings between past-month and past-year substance use, more research is needed. 8
- Johnson LD, O’Malley PM, Miech RA, Bachman JG, Schulenberg JE. Monitoring the Future National Survey Results on Drug Use: 1975-2016. 2016 Overview: Key Findings on Adolescent Drug Use. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan; 2016. http://monitoringthefuture.org//pubs/monographs/mtf-overview2016.pdf. Accessed February 17, 2017.
- LabCorp. Drugs of Abuse Reference Guide. https://www.labcorp.com/wps/wcm/connect/24b476804b65af7fb49cb5dc8b9b0898/L1123-0613-4.pdf?MOD=AJPERES&CACHEID=24b476804b65af7fb49cb5dc8b9b0898&CACHEID=457e14004b2a17b4ba21bb1199be625c&CACHEID=457e14004b2a17b4ba21bb1199be625c&CACHEID=457e14004b2a17b4ba21bb1199be625c&. Published 2016. Accessed February 16, 2017.
- Levy S, Schizer M. Adolescent Drug Testing Policies in Schools. Pediatrics. 2015;135(4). http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/pediatrics/early/2015/03/25/peds.2015-0054.full.pdf. Accessed March 6, 2017.
- Terry-McElrath YM, O’Malley PM, Johnston LD. Middle and high school drug testing and student illicit drug use: a national study 1998-2011. J Adolesc Health Off Publ Soc Adolesc Med. 2013;52(6):707-715. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2012.11.020.
- Sznitman SR, Romer D. Student drug testing and positive school climates: testing the relation between two school characteristics and drug use behavior in a longitudinal study. J Stud Alcohol Drugs. 2014;75(1):65-73.
- James-Burdumy S, Goesling B, Deke J, Einspruch E. The effectiveness of mandatory-random student drug testing: a cluster randomized trial. J Adolesc Health Off Publ Soc Adolesc Med. 2012;50(2):172-178. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2011.08.012.
- Sznitman SR, Dunlop SM, Nalkur P, Khurana A, Romer D. Student drug testing in the context of positive and negative school climates: results from a national survey. J Youth Adolesc. 2012;41(2):146-155. doi:10.1007/s10964-011-9658-2.
- Goldberg L, Elliot DL, MacKinnon DP, et al. Outcomes of a prospective trial of student-athlete drug testing: the Student Athlete Testing Using Random Notification (SATURN) study. J Adolesc Health Off Publ Soc Adolesc Med. 2007;41(5):421-429. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2007.08.001.