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Drug Testing and Deception

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Slate has a story this week about the failure of school drug testing. It reports that the largest studies of the issue do not support randomly testing students or testing those in extracurricular activities as a way of reducing drug use. The article highlights the involvement of former drug czar Robert DuPont -- a long-time drug warrior -- in flawed research frequently cited by the current drug czar to refute the other data.

In DuPont's study, the first criteria for inclusion of a school in the research was the "student drug testing program's apparent success." In other words, the study only included programs which seemed to be doing well, not those which didn't -- a research 101 error.

DuPont told Slate that a company in which he is a partner "doesn't have anything to do with drug testing" -- but its website lists "testing" as one of the services it provides.

This duplicity should not be surprising. DuPont has a long history of trying to fit the facts to his preconceptions. If it weren't so serious, his 1983 testimony in a civil trial against Straight Inc., a notoriously abusive teen rehab, would be laughable. The suit was brought by a college student named Fred Collins, who had been held in the program against his will.

DuPont, who became a paid consultant to Straight immediately after he left the drug czar's office in the early '80s, said it was "the best program of its kind in the country." Participants, however, called it torturous: ultimately, regulators and lawsuits documented human rights abuses such as beatings, lengthy periods of isolation, sexual humiliation and denial of bathroom access until kids wet and soiled themselves. These accounts go back to the 1970s, before DuPont became involved with the program, so it is unlikely that he was unaware of them.

Collins had attempted to visit his brother at the Straight program in 1982. Before being allowed to see his brother, he was required to be "screened" for any drug problems of his own, to avoid allowing a visit by anyone who might be a bad influence.

The "screening" consisted of a lengthy interrogation in a tiny room, conducted by other teens enrolled in Straight. They shouted at Collins, attacked him and accused him of addiction -- and when he admitted that he had smoked marijuana, they took this as evidence that he needed treatment.

The program refused to set him free when he repeatedly asked to leave, even though he was a legal adult. His parents paid for his incarceration: they were convinced that the program had properly diagnosed him -- despite the fact that Fred had been doing well at Virginia Tech and they had not previously considered him in need of any kind of treatment.

When Collins finally managed to escape after 10 months of forced confrontational group therapy aimed at breaking his "denial," he sued.

During the trial, DuPont testified that Collins had "voluntarily" entered the program and was a "pathological user." But Fred's drug use didn't meet the standard diagnostic criteria for addiction (called drug dependence) as defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, as DuPont was forced to admit on cross-examination.

Collins won $220,000 to compensate for the illegal detention and abuse he'd suffered in the program. $180,000 of that verdict was for punitive damages, aimed at getting Straight to recognize that it was not above the law.

But Straight didn't learn the lesson and wound up paying hundreds of thousands more in later lawsuits before it finally shut down in 1993. DuPont has apparently never repudiated the group -- and he continues pushing student drug testing which often feeds kids into its descendents, some of which still use the same abusive tactics.