05/07/2013 07:16 BST | Updated 03/09/2013 06:12 BST

Drug Testing University Students Would Be a Bad Move


Neuroscientist Professor Barbara Sahakian is concerned about university students using Ritalin and other 'smart drugs' (a daft label) to improve concentration. Many, myself included, share that concern. It clearly shows the stresses and pressures students are under, likely made worse by the knowledge that the job sector is worse than it has been for a long time.

One particular 'solution' Professor Sahakian suggests, however, is random drug testing prior to exams. "If there were random testing in exam situations" she told the Telegraph, "it should act as a deterrent".

Professor Sahakian's new book on the ethics of 'smart drugs' is called 'Bad Moves: How decision making goes wrong...'. Here we have a clear example.

1. It misses the point

The discussions around this have so far centred far too much on whether the use Ritalin and other drugs by some students is 'fair' on those who do not. This mischaracterises both what the university experience should be and the exam situation. More importantly, it misses the point, leading to wrong-headed solutions such as random drug testing. If the concern is raised about some students using drugs to cope with pressure or for other reasons then our concern should be about them and what is driving their drug use. Focusing on whether it is fair to other students tends to lead to punitive responses to those we claim to be concerned about. We see this in other areas of policy making, including in relation to illicit drugs and people who use them. Starting from this perspective is counterproductive and potentially very harmful.

2. It fails to consider existing evidence

Professor Sahakian claims that random drug testing of exam students 'should act as a deterrent'. The evidence for universities is lacking, and this alone should urge caution with such a claim, but random school drug testing has been proliferating in high schools in various countries without a working theory as to why or how it might even possibly work. The result is perhaps inevitable - random school drug testing, where it has been properly studied, shows no deterrent effect. The largest study (by Yamaguchi and colleagues) across hundreds of schools in the US - some with random testing, some without - and with tens of thousands of students involved showed this.

3. It fails to consider potential negatives

People have suggested expulsion to deal with those testing positive for Ritalin or other drugs (Professor Sahakain did not). But this is a risk - a genuine potential sanction. So let us be clear: we raise a concern about students feeling so much pressure that they resort to drugs to cope. We raise the health concerns around those drugs. Then, as a response, we single out a handful of the students randomly, and make an example of them by utterly destroying their academic careers.

This begs the question: once a student does test positive what is the university prepared to do about it? Even if expulsion is considered too harsh, what next? The original deterrent claim cannot be supported, so perhaps students identified have to detox, re-test and re-sit? Are they supported to deal with the pressure in other ways, given that this process will make those pressures more profoundly felt? Why not provide that support in the first place?

What, then, of fairness? Others will slip through this testing 'net', which is random by definition.

There are other potential negatives. Depending on the drugs and the testing methods, students may seek out other drugs, potentially more harmful, that leave the system quicker. Random testing can damage trust within the educational institution, as it represents a punitive and stigmatising approach which may affect the willingness of students who are struggling to come forward. This is not helpful to the student or the learning environment.

What about false positives? Technologies around drug testing are not without their problems, as a recent payout in the US shows. A woman had her newborn child taken from her for five days as she tested positive for opiates while pregnant. She ate poppy seed bagels.

So then we need appeals processes on top of the testing processes and the technologies and the exam re-sits and so on. So cost implications should be considered, but as this is a terrible idea on other grounds, really the discussion should not get to that stage.

In policy making one of the most common ways decision making 'goes wrong' is arbitrary knee jerk reactions without thought or analysis. In this case it is legislating for symptoms without addressing the causes that bring them about. The result will be harmful to the students we're supposed to be helping to reach their potential.

It is important that prominent academics like Professor Sahakian speak up on this issue and the pressures of today's university experience. But when it comes to responses we all have to think harder.