Pilot Study Reports High School Drug-Testing Program Dramatically Reduces Drug Use

12/30/02    Portland, Ore.

Oregon study also indicates development of riskier attitudes among drug-tested students.

A first-of-its-kind scientific study has found that student athletes at a high school with a mandatory, random drug-testing policy reported fourfold lower illicit drug use and threefold lower performance-enhancing substance use than athletes at a control school.

The study was conducted at two public high schools in Oregon during the 1999-2000 school year by researchers at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, Oregon, and was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, an arm of the National Institutes of Health. Results are published in the January 2003 issue of The Journal of Adolescent Health.

The findings are from the first year of the SATURN (Student Athlete Testing Using Random Notification) study. In the pilot study, Wahtonka High School in The Dalles, Oregon, required student athletes to agree to mandatory, random drug testing to participate in sports. A similar-sized high school in Warrenton, near Astoria, Oregon, had no drug-testing policy. Students at both schools were given questionnaires about drug use and attitudes.

Mandatory drug testing of high school athletes is legal and has been adopted by many schools nationwide in an effort to combat drug use. The goal of SATURN was to assess the positive and negative effects of such a policy. Since SATURN began, the U.S. Supreme Court has expanded the scope of legal drug testing to include students participating in all extracurricular activities, not just sports.

Paradoxically, the study also indicated that although reported drug use was down among athletes at the tested school, their attitudes toward drug use went in the other direction. The study reports that athletes at the drug-testing schools increasingly viewed drug use as a less risky behavior and said that they believed more students were using drugs.

"These results may mean that athletes in the drug-testing program feel that because their school adopted drug testing as a preventive approach, many kids at their school must be using drugs," said study coordinator Linn Goldberg, M.D., director of the Division of Health Promotion and Sports Medicine in the OHSU School of Medicine. "Perhaps the combination of more perceived use and the absence of observable harmful effects led to a belief that drug use may not be that bad."

Theoretically, that attitude among student athletes places them into a higher risk category for drug use, according to Goldberg. "On the other hand, if the reported decline in drug use holds true, and remains lower during the summer months when testing is not conducted, then drug testing may prove to be a very effective drug prevention program for schools," he said.

The three-year SATURN study began in the 2000-2001 school year at 13 public high schools in Oregon that were randomized into drug-testing and control groups. Now in its third and final year of data collection, the study was suspended by the federal Office for Human Research Protection last October over concerns regarding how the questionnaires were handled in classrooms, the randomization of schools and the researchers' (who are certified doping control officers for the U.S. Olympics drug-testing program) involvement in the drug-testing procedure. OHSU has responded to those concerns and has asked OHRP for a quick reinstatement of the study.

"These pilot results are not complete; they indicate trends but represent too short a time frame to draw definite conclusions about the efficacy of drug-testing programs," said Goldberg. "This is why it is important to complete a longer-term study that tracks these findings over a number of years across several schools."

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