Friday, January 27, 2006

Students spank Drug Czar at his own show

Kris Krane, SSDP's brand new executive director, along with students from the University of Central Florida NORML chapter, attended the Drug Czar's drug testing circus sideshow in Orlando a few weeks ago. Here are some exceprts from a report he wrote on the experience:

"The ONDCP held the first of four regional summits in Orlando on Thursday January 19, 2006, to promote the enactment of random student drug testing policies in district middle and high schools. Staff members from NORML, SSDP and DPA coordinated a planned action at the event to assure that our message would be heard.

We assumed that most of the summit’s attendees would be on the fence about drug testing. Therefore, we decided the best course of action would be to distribute literature and talk to the administrators during the summit itself, rather than organizing a protest or direct action outside the event. In retrospect, this was probably the best decision we could have made, and I would strongly recommend taking this approach at future summits.

Our goal in attending the summit was twofold. First, we hoped to gain local media attention, and to position ourselves as experts that the press could contact for an opposition quote. The Drug Policy Alliance sent out press releases in advance alerting the media that we would be present at the event and available to be interviewed. Both Marsha Rosenbaum of DPA and Paul Armentano of NORML submitted opeds to the Orlando Sentinal and Orlando Times in advance of the summit. DPA Director Ethan Nadelmann appeared on a radio show on this topic on local station WBDO, while criticism of the summit received coverage in the UCF student newspaper, the Central Florida Future. DPA’s Marsha Rosenbaum also had a story on the summit published on Alternet. The Orlando Sentinal did cover the story after the summit, and reported a lukewarm reception to drug testing among the summit attendees.

Second, and more importantly, our goal was to persuade those school administrators attending the summit not to take advantage of government grants, and not to implement student drug testing in their schools. In this respect, as evidenced by the Sentinal coverage and the conversations we had with attendees, we were quite successful. Attendees were receptive to our information, appreciated hearing an opposition point of view, and were not hesitant to engage us or ask questions. Ultimately, we will not truly know how successfully our message was received for months, as all three organizations plan to monitor how many new Florida school districts implement student drug testing programs.

...


The volunteers and I arrived at the summit with boxes of literature to distribute. We were under the impression that the ONDCP would have a literature table available for anyone who wanted to provide handouts, as they did at last year’s summits. However, upon arrival we discovered that the literature table was for ONDCP authorized materials only. The backup plan was simply to hand out literature to summit attendees in an effort to engage them in conversation (hence the production of portable tri-fold brochures). Instead we managed to take a table from another conference area and set it up directly outside the door to the ONDCP conference area. Thankfully the ONDCP did not use their own staff to organize the conference, and the conference-planning firm handling this responsibility did not seem to mind us tabling outside the summit doors.

During the summit breaks, conference attendees walked past our literature table, and to our delight, the vast majority stopped by the table at one point or another and took literature. They seemed particularly impressed with the DPA Student Drug Testing guide, and the talking points tri-fold brochure put together by NORML and SSDP. Most of the attendees simply took the literature and said thank you, but many of them stopped to ask questions and discuss their concerns with student drug testing.

Overall, I would estimate that over 2/3 of the conference attendees stopped by the table at one point or another. While one or two attendees, mostly from the drug testing industry, were upset with our literature and message, it was clear from the reactions and conversations that the overwhelming majority of school administrators appreciated our presence. These administrators arrived at the summit unsure of whether or not to implement drug testing in their schools, and they appeared to consider our information to be on par with the information they were getting from the ONDCP. A few administrators expressed their discontent with the ONDCP “propaganda” and thanked us for presenting a counter view. The UCF students did an incredible job remaining professional and courteous throughout the seminar.

Inside the sessions, we hoped to ask a number of difficult questions of the speakers. We had pre-written questions ready to ask of every speaker. Unfortunately, the ONDCP was prepared and they did not provide a true question and answer period. Instead, all attendees received two yellow index cards in their conference packets. In order to ask a question, attendees had to write them down on these cards and pass them to the front, which allowed the speakers to pick and choose the questions that they wished to answer.

However, many of the speakers did choose questions posed by reformers. Unfortunately, while they allowed the questions to be asked, the speakers were extremely adept at avoiding providing actual answers. For example, Sonja Hoppe, VP of Southwest Laboratories, was asked whether she was concerned that students would turn to hard drugs, binge drinking, and tobacco because marijuana metabolites stay in the system for up to 30 days. She responded by explaining that her lab can test for alcohol and tobacco and went on to explain the procedure, completely avoiding the actual question. Chris Steffner, principal of Hackettstown High School, was asked whether she was concerned that students who fail drug tests will be embarrassed and stigmatized by their fellow students and faculty members. She responded by saying that she surveyed the entire student body and not one student said they were embarrassed by the drug testing program, a dubious claim at best.

The only speaker who actually took questions directly from the audience and allowed for follow up was attorney William Judge, who presented on the legal issues surrounding drug testing. This led to the following exchange between Mr. Judge and Roger Scott of the NORML Legal Committee:

RS: Can you tell us the average cost of defending one of these lawsuits?
WJ: If you hire me, it’s free.
RS: That’s nice, but what is the average cost?
WJ: Well, I will fly anywhere in the country and defend any school district in the country pro bono if they are sued for a drug testing program.
RS: Are you even licensed in the state of Florida?
WJ: No. However if I a local school district files a ‘pro hac vici’ motion, I can legally represent them.
RS: Wouldn’t you then be required to consult with local counsel?
WJ: Yes I would.
RS: Well how much would THAT cost?
WJ: You are only asking these questions because you are opposed to drug testing programs, and you want to sue schools that have them.
RS: Actually, I am a lawyer. I’ll represent whichever side will pay me.

The exchange clearly demonstrated to the administrators that no matter what the ONDCP said, there would be cost associated with any lawsuit that might arise as a result of implementing drug testing.

One thing that the UCF students astutely observed was that many of the speakers talked about students and heroin use. This was an obvious attempt to scare the administrators into thinking that heroin is a big problem among students, when studies show the most widely abused drug among high school students is alcohol. For future summits, it would be advisable to be prepared to ask as many questions as possible about student alcohol abuse compared to hard drug abuse, and to continue to stress the likelihood of a student testing positive for marijuana compared to alcohol.

Another misleading fact raised by most of the speakers was the cost of implementing a drug testing program in schools. More than one speaker claimed that a comprehensive drug testing program can be implemented for under $3000. This obviously does not cover follow up tests for those students who falsely test positive, nor does it cover potential legal expenses if a school district is sued over a testing program or by a parent who claims his or her child’s positive test was false. At future summits, we should make an effort to ask questions that highlight the actual costs of a drug testing program, and make sure this is featured prominently in the literature we distribute.

...

In the end, it was clear from the media coverage and conversations with school administrators that our presence was welcomed and appreciated. We will have no way of knowing the true impact that we had on these administrators until we can follow up on how many new Florida districts implement drug testing programs over the next years.

It was also clear that since most of these administrators were truly on the fence about whether or not to implement drug testing policies, our tactic of engaging the participants and handing out literature was far more effective that a protest or direct action. These administrators clearly had the best interest of their students in mind, and appreciated our willingness to engage them in discussions on this issue. A protest almost certainly would have been confrontational and turned them off to our side of the issue."

Folks who want to spread truth at the upcoming drug testing summits in San Diego, Milwaukee, or Falls Church should contact SSDP!

2 comments:

800 pound gorilla said...

You could also point out the fact that - in the adult world of drugs - drug testing is done almost exclusively at the lowest economic levels. There is a reason for this. The primary - if not the only - reason to drug test someone earning less, is that the employer is concerned that the employee might steal from them. A secondary factor is that at the lowest levels applicants or workers[if random testing involved] have fewer economic resources to sue and the pay is low enough to make a lawsuit counterproductive.

As you go up the economic ladder the incentives to steal to support an addiction to overpriced drugs diminish greatly and the incentives to sue for a false positive are much greater. Even proposals to test teachers are going nowhere. After six or seven years to get educated and certified a false positive can be devastating! Of course you will be sued for false positives. Your tests will have to be more conclusive and much more expensive.

If we didn't criminalize drugs and give criminals the distribution rights we wouldn't have exorbitant street prices. People don't pilfer money to get their next smoked nicotine fix and not even the DEA is claiming that any banned drug is more addictive than smoked nicotine. That's because, despite the use of cigarette taxes to bankroll big government [sock it to the addict is a favorite refrain of big government] boondoggles - including the drug war - cigarette addiction seldom comes to more than a 5-10 dollar a day addiction, easily covered by a minimum wage job.

What message are we giving to kids when we drug test? Since we only drug test those at the lower stratum of society, that's the value we place on them. When we start testing CEO's, congressional reps and staff, judges, and those in the executive, then we should seriously consider school children. Then when all those false positives from the elite get publicized we'll hear the whining around the planet.

thehim said...

Tom,
A commenter over at Kos pointed out something interesting that I wasn't aware of. Apparently, ChoicePoint has been buying up a number of drug testing agencies.