Indiana University Bloomington

Indiana Prevention Resource Center (IPRC)

Does drug testing actually deter student drug use?

Why do schools test kids for drugs? Presumably, it is because school decision makers believe that testing will deter students drug use. And, if they have a choice about how they will use the money, they must also believe that drug testing is the best use of that money.

“It gives them a reason to say ‘no.’” That’s an intuitive argument, especially if testing positive earns a student suspension from school privileges, or even just a call to their parents.

And intuition is the historical source of much of prevention. But today, substance abuse prevention has moved into the realm of science. Over time, scientific research has shown that some intuitively sensible prevention tactics do not deter drug use: scare tactics, celebrity speakers, values clarification, and “just say no,” for example. Other intuitively sensible tactics, like giving kids information about drugs, have been shown not to work alone. Prevention programs and strategies that have been shown to work do not use these disproven tactics.

So what does science tell us about drug testing kids? Does the science say that it deters drug use? There have been some scientific studies of random or suspicionless drug testing of students by their schools.

And, simply put, there is insufficient scientific evidence either to support or disprove the assertion that RDT deters student drug use.

So far, scientific research has not provided much evidence that it works. Dr. Linn Goldberg, of the Oregon Health & Science University, is the designer the only controlled scientific study ever to find any direct evidence that drug testing of students deters their use. In 2003, Goldberg said, “Schools should not implement a drug testing program until they’re proven to work…. They’re too expensive. It’s like having experimental surgery that’s never been shown to work” (Winter, 2003).

The small size of Dr. Goldberg’s study (Goldberg, et al., 2003), along with the inconsistency of its other findings, prevent its providing good evidence for a causal relationship between drug testing and deterrence.

Also, consider this: If drug testing did deter use in a reliable way, wouldn’t you expect to find less drug use at schools that do testing? That was exactly the question asked by Drs. Ryoko Yamaguchi, Lloyd Johnston, Patrick M. O'Malley (2003) when they examined drug use by thousands of youth in hundreds of schools that were randomly selected for the Monitoring the Future study. The researchers compared drug use in schools that drug tested and schools that didn’t. They also looked at student athletes and other subgroups. For all of these, Yamaguchi and colleagues found no significant differences in drug use between schools that tested and schools that did not.

Because of its cross-sectional design and other issues, this study does not conclusively disprove the deterrence effect of drug use (Evans, et al., 2006). But neither does it seem to support the notion that testing deters use. The very large size of this study should have allowed even very small differences to be detected.

The United States government is heavily promoting drug testing right now. But that doesn’t mean that drug testing deters drug use. What can we say about drug testing with certainty right now? As substance abuse prevention, random or suspicionless drug testing of students stands on ground as solid as scare tactics did in 1959.

Another question is whether drug testing is the best use of prevention money. Obviously, if we don’t know whether it works, we would be better off using methods that have at least some evidence of effectiveness. But there’s even more to it than that.

Some prevention programs that can be run in schools have substantial outcomes research behind them. We call them “evidence based.” Most of those programs use a combination of drug education, skill building, and norms shaping. The threats exposing kids’ drug use to their parents and of sanctions might deter kids from using drugs in the short run. But evidence-based prevention programs can not only deter drug use, they can help kids avoid other delinquent behaviors and even improve academic achievement. These claims are based on actual outcomes research and scientific evidence, not intuition or hype.

To learn more about evidence-based prevention programs, contact the Indiana Prevention Resource Center.


Evans, G. D., Reader, S., Liss, H. J., Wiens, B. A., and A. Roy (2006). Implementation of an aggressive random drug-testing policy in a rural school district: Student attitudes regarding program fairness and effectiveness. Journal of School Health 76(9), 452-458.
Goldberg, L., Elliott, D. L., MacKinnon, D. P., Moe, E., Kuehl, K. S., Nohre, L., and C. M. Lockwood (2003). Drug testing athletes to prevent substance abuse: Background and pilot study results of the SATURN (Student Athlete Testing Using Random Notification) Study. Journal of Adolescent Health 32(1), 16-25.
Winter, G. (2003). Study finds no sign that testing deters students’ drug use. The New York Times, May 17, 2003, A1.
Yamaguchi, R., Johnston, L. D., and P. M. O’Malley (2003). Relationship between student illicit drug use and school drug-testing policies. Journal of School Health 73(4), 159-164.

by Eric Martin, 4/18/2007