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Question time: Drug screening

Why should children be tested for drugs in schools, as has been suggested?

John Ellul, Consulting Criminologist

Policy making essentially requires the need to reflect the voice of the people and to lead the way forward by steering the nation in the right direction through its political visibility of the various sectors which make up our society such as health, education, economy, environment and more.  Ultimately we develop our policy direction to better our lives and enhance the quality of life for our citizens based on research, high-end consultancy and meetings with stakeholders. 

According to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDD, 2017), drug testing in schools is conducted in various jurisdictions, however providing assurance of anonymity and endorsing all the legal safeguards that are essentially required to protect the rights of the children and also give the parents or legal custodians the right to opt out while at the same time we shall seek the most advanced scientific and non-invasive methods.

It is definitely not our policy to randomly test children for drugs and we are not in any way suggesting that we want to follow this measure. This was posed as a question during the round table seminar organised by The President’s Foundation for the Well-being of Society and was only aimed at eliciting a discussion.  Indeed we had immediate valid reactions by the experts. 

It is worth mentioning that through ESPAD, which is an extremely valid national survey based on a self-reporting structured questionnaire and is conducted among 16 year olds every four years, we already have valuable data. This data is compared among other countries and measures various attributes related to the use of tobacco, alcohol and illicit drugs. It is also evident that we have some data gaps in other age groups, specifically between 10 and 15 years.  Unfortunately this hinders our policy planning process or the development and provision of related services. 

It is imperative that we act now and that we address the problem at its core

In order to develop a service or address a problem we need to know the extent of the problem and have clear and accurate data. We are duty bound to address the problems in the right way and this is why we need to seriously consider collecting data from these age groups and together with stakeholders, educators and parents strike a balance between the legal, ethical and technical matters and most importantly obtain the consent of the parents or legal custodians of the children. 

For us this is a societal priority since it is in our nation’s interest to invest in our children as they are our future.  It is imperative that we act now and that we address the problem at its core, so we need to have in place the appropriate mechanisms to deal with these age groups.

Through our research and meetings with stakeholders we have so far developed a conceptual framework based on a set of strategies.  We are very pleased that a number of our stakeholders have endorsed our strategies and have also talked about them in public in a positive way. Our strategy entails that our stakeholders identify their competencies and boundaries and actively participate and contribute within their specific field of expertise.

We are currently looking into structurally designed training programmes aimed at delaying the onset of experimentation while understanding the dangers and consequences of illegal substances and at the same time developing a national strategy by which we invest in alternative means of recreation that will provide more access and facilitate participation in sports, arts, music and many other fields. 

It is also imperative to re-engineer our support services and adapt to modern needs by adopting a harm reduction approach based on modern proactive support services. Our strategy intends to address dependence at an early stage and not when users have reached critical levels, lost their job, become failures, have relationship problems and perhaps engage in crime. It is only in this way that we can create our own champions and high achievers.

Daniel Vella Fondacaro, Specialist Trainee Psychiatry and Executive Member MZPN

Mankind has been fighting the war on drugs for far too long, and frankly most of our efforts failed to generate the beneficial expected outcomes. It has long been established that all illicit drugs have some form of acute or chronic deleterious effects. Each individual has a different reason as to why they use drugs, and one must explore these reasons to understand why the war on drugs is as complicated as it is.

To get an idea, the European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs (ESPAD) 2015 report observed a generally decreasing trend in cigarette and alcohol use among adolescents. However, the percentage of students who smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol at 13 years of age or younger is still significant (23 per cent and 47 per cent respectively). Regarding cannabis, students’ use increased from 1995 to 2015. Approximately three per cent of students reported first use of cannabis when 13 years old or younger, and 30 per cent reported that cannabis is easily available.

Screening for drugs in schools is a short-term strategy as students will find new undetectable ways

There have been several studies carried out to test the efficacy and feasibility of drug screening programmes in schools, and generally, results were inconclusive. As ever, there are the pros and cons. Some argue that drug screening in schools might contribute to a safer environment and might also prevent further drug use down the road if managed appropriately. Another possible advantage is that students might find a plausible reason to resist peer pressure as they may be tested.

However, drug screening is expensive, and others argue that it would be much more effective and responsible to invest these finances in preventive programmes such as seminars, outreaching and campaigns.

This was highlighted in a recent interview of the Malta Association of Psychiatry. Students must be directed towards other ways of having fun in life, such as sports and music. Furthermore, there are several forms of screening and most methods might come across as invasive for students. Such methods were used in the military (e.g. the Vietnam war), and this form of negative sanctioning can promote a culture of fear in schools.

There are also ethical aspects. Where shall we draw the line? Shall we test only for cannabis, or shall we include opioids, cocaine, amphetamines? What about the new synthetic drugs? One must keep in mind that screening for cannabis might cause a surge in synthetic drugs, as these require special testing packs which increase the overall expense.

Winning the war on drugs is not easy, and perhaps impossible. However, we must choose our battles wisely. In my opinion, screening for drugs in schools is a short-term strategy as students will find new undetectable ways and means, just like we have seen in the adult population.

Furthermore, what will happen when students finish school and drug testing stops? Stopping drug use by promoting fear (of getting caught) might only protect the student during school years and might not help in strengthening one’s character to make the right decisions later on in life.

We should firmly invest our resources in preventive measures such as sports, art and therapy from a young age. We should strive to nip the problem in the bud and strike while we still can by understanding why these students opt for drugs. Are there any unresolved family or relationship issues, peer pressures or undiagnosed mental illness? These are the problems we must address, rather than screening when it might be already too late.

Prevention is cheaper and much more effective than cure. This is the appropriate long-term strategy we should adopt within the constraints of a limited public health and schools’ budget – A united effort between the relevant stakeholders towards measurable and effective prevention systems to help students build a future-oriented mindset and a positive barrier to harmful substances.

If you would like to put any questions to the two parties in Parliament send an e-mail marked clearly Question Time to editor@timesofmalta.com.

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