Home > ANCD position paper: drug testing.

Australian National Council on Drugs. (2013) ANCD position paper: drug testing. Canberra: Australian National Council on Drugs.

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• Drug testing is used in a number of contexts in Australia and internationally. These uses include providing medical information within drug treatment, helping inform legal decisions, roadside drug testing, and detecting drug use among specific populations, such as in workplaces and schools.

• The aims which drug testing programs are proposed to meet, the rationale for their use, evidence of their effectiveness for meeting their aims, their other potential consequences, and the ethical and legal issues they invoke, all differ by context.

• Drug testing programs impose a burden on those tested, in terms of their infringement on individuals’ bodily and information privacy. For a specific drug testing program to be acceptable, this burden must be outweighed by relevant factors present in the specific context of use. Such factors may include considerations of public safety or other significant public interests, or the consent of those undergoing testing.

• This paper focuses on drug testing as used within drug treatment, among parents in contact with child protection services, in schools, among welfare beneficiaries, and in the workplace.

• With regard to each of these contexts, the paper overviews the rationale for using drug testing or implementing a program of drug testing, the coherence of the rationale, the current evidence base for the use of drug testing in that context, and the ethical or legal issues raised.

• Within drug treatment, drug testing is primarily used in Australia to support medical decision-making. This is a valid medical usage to ensure that prescribed treatments will be safe and effective for patients. There is, however, a need to ensure that such testing does not outrun its medical use, and is used only to review and improve the individual’s progress in treatment.

• Regarding parental drug testing to facilitate child protection decisions, drug tests may provide further information on particular families’ situations. It is important that the use of drug testing in this context is cautiously considered. Where decisions to use drug testing are made within particular cases the information they provide should be considered supplementary to other information on the family situation. The possibility of false negatives or false positives needs to be carefully considered and addressed.

• There is little satisfactory evidence to support the use of drug testing in schools, but there are reasons for concern about potential negative effects and high costs, and evidence of other, non-intrusive methods that might better meet the aims of such drug testing programs. There should be a presumption against the use of drug testing programs in schools on the currently available evidence-base.

• There is no evidence that drug testing welfare beneficiaries will have any positive effects for those individuals or for society, and some evidence indicating such a practice could have high social and economic costs. In addition, there would be serious ethical and legal problems in implementing such a program in Australia. Drug testing of welfare beneficiaries ought not be considered.

• The evidence for the effectiveness of workplace drug testing programs to improve workplace safety is limited. There is potential for negative consequences for companies as well as employees, including high economic costs; and some evidence that other measures would be more likely to improve workplace safety. In addition there are problematic ethical and legal implications surrounding employee privacy. While the ANCD recognises that a stronger rationale and argument for drug testing of workers in safety-sensitive positions, or in positions of public trust and authority, can be given, there should be a presumption against a broader introduction of workplace drug testing.

• Drug testing programs are highly expensive. For example, the cost of implementing drug testing programs in Australian schools has been estimated be up to $355 million. A program of drug testing welfare beneficiaries which operated for four months in Florida, USA, and discontinued benefits to those who tested positive, cost the state an estimated $118,140, and ran at a net loss of approximately $45,000. Drug testing programs are unlikely to have any economic benefits in most contexts.

• Whilst it is understandable why some might presume that drug testing is a useful strategy, it is high in cost, may have unintended adverse outcomes, and raises serious ethical and legal issues. Its drawbacks may be addressed, at least in part, if it is clearly demonstrated that drug testing effectively meets its aims and reduces risk. At least to date, however, the evidence does not support such a conclusion.

Item Type
Publication Type
International, Report
Drug Type
Substances (not alcohol/tobacco)
Intervention Type
Screening / Assessment
August 2013
26 p.
Australian National Council on Drugs
Corporate Creators
Australian National Council on Drugs
Place of Publication
Accession Number
HRB (Electronic Only)

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