When trying to understand and respond to problematic drug use technology appears to offer some tempting certainties. Numerous companies sell equipment to drug test saliva, hair, perspiration, blood and urine. The use of this technology has been embedded into various sentences of the court including the Drug Treatment and Testing Orders and Drug Rehabilitation Requirement Drug. Drug testing offers the illusion of certainty, fact and truth in a very uncertain environment. The illusion occurs in part, because it is possible the test could produce a ‘false’ positive, or indeed a ‘false’ negative, it is possible the person tested could have found a way to ‘cheat’ the test, and it is possible the positive result could have been caused by an unknown intake of a legitimate substance. However, the real illusion for drug workers with drug testing is that a paradigm shift can occur in which abstinence becomes the key measure for success and harm reduction gets lost in translation; the tough journey of rehabilitation and reintegration becomes reduced to a simple evidence of whether or not the person is drug free; and coercion replaces counselling.
Imagine if I tested positive for the drug alcohol, what would it tell you? Even if the test was accurate and reliable (and most are), testing positive for alcohol wouldn’t tell you how I took the drug, where I took the drug, why I took the drug, or when I took the drug. Most important, a positive result would give absolutely no indication of whether or not I had an alcohol problem. But when a machine is able to provide documented evidence that a person is (or is not) drug free, it gives the case ‘manager’, probation officer, magistrate or judge the security of apparent certainty and simplicity instead of facing and grappling with the sometimes overwhelming social, psychological and physiological problem of chronic drug dependence. With drug testing it’s easy to simply focus upon the substance and not the person, and for abstinence to become the currency not harm reduction.
Most people with a drug problem have seriously damaged personal and social circumstances before drugs even became an issue, and this is usually where they need most help. The pre-occupation with the presence of the drug, risks side-stepping the real underlying issues, which if not addressed, will almost certainly lead to relapse, - and when it does it’ll be the user that gets the blame (or indeed gets prison).
Drug testing offers seductive simplicity but one that has the potential to mislead more than it can inform. Drug testing is a growth industry – so are prisons!
Julian Buchanan is Associate Professor, Institute of Criminology, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. To read his critique of drug policy under New Labour click on the following Drug and alcohol policy under New Labour: Pandering to populism?