Challenges of Contemporary Parenting: Effectively Applying Urine Drug Tests for Children
From Privacy Journal, November 1998.

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Gary T. Marx

It has never been easy to be a parent, but in today's complex world the challenges are noteworthy. Consider the simple question of helping children be drug-free.

Ideally parents should do this by example and education. But since such a large percentage of parents have used or use drugs that solution is limited. It also runs the risk of clearly defining for children what they should rebel against. Better to rely on the cool, impersonal precision of scientific technology. There are fortunately a variety of products to help.

But in turning to technology still other questions are raised:

  1. Which technology? In the best free market tradition parents have many choices. They can spend $50 to be trained to administer a psychological screening measure that claims "objective scoring...with an empirically tested accuracy of 88%". They can obtain a small vacuum cleaner-like device that samples the air around a child's desk in search of tell-tale drug molecules. They can purchase a drug-identifying spray can, use it on personal possessions such as a wallet or books, wipe this with a paper towel in search of tell-tale color changes suggesting the presence of drugs. But while these may indicate the presence of drugs they don't reveal how they got there. Your innocent child's air or property might have been contaminated by the presence of a real drug user your child was trying to help and what about the 12% of the time the "objective scoring" measure fails? Better to go right to the source --urine.
  2. What age to start the testing? Given the precociousness of today's children and the lurking temptations, if you really love your child you probably can't start too early. Starting when children are being toilet trained will get them accustomed to the idea and will neutralize any family-destructive ideas about their supposed privacy or rights.
  3. What about the mechanics of collecting the sample? Ideally it should be done with the child's informed consent and fair warning. But then the child might go cold turkey just to pass the test or take other blocking action such as eating a poppyseed bagel for breakfast. Using random surprise tests can eliminate this problem. But be prepared to be in it for the long haul and to budget accordingly. Just because today's test came back clean there is no guarantee that tomorrow's will be the same. In fact if you have grounds for suspicion, a clean test might simply indicate how really devious and clever your child is. Are you sure it was really their urine?
  4. How to avoid having samples switched? This is a classic tactic-simply switch clean [sic] urine for tainted. While most persons won't go as far as the male athlete who, in trying for an Olympic position, gave a urine sample indicating that he was drug free but pregnant. That anomaly led to further testing with the same result and his eventual confession that he had used a catheter to insert his girl friend's urine into his system. In less complex cases the solution is to observe the sample being produced. Of course this raises issues of gender.
  5. Who should collect the sample? For obvious reasons this should be a parent of the same sex. In today's diverse society that can be problematic. What of single-parent families where that is not possible? Would the same sex watching pattern apply in situations where the parent or child is gay?
  6. What if the child resists giving the sample or claims a right to privacy with respect to both being observed and delivering a personal possession? We do after all have doors on bathrooms for a reason. While the situation is morally mucky, legally it is clear. The legal status of bodily wastes is like that of exhaled oxygen or garbage on the street --whoever intercepts it can have it (if they want it). Only in Beverly Hills is it against the law to pick up garbage without a license. It is best to gather the sample in an automated fashion through covert intervention in the plumbing system. Don't laugh. There is a long tradition for this. The CIA deserves the prize here for creative waste management when it "tapped" the plumbing at Camp David during Krushchev's visit and reportedly discovered that he was diabetic. An automated "health management toilet system" is available in Japan and may be coming soon to a store near you. It includes the "K-0001 intelligent toilet urine tester". It can also measure blood pressure, body temperature and a variety of other health related factors including pregnancy and recent sexual activity. The results are transmitted over phone lines to the laboratory (so no fear of them being lost in the mails).
  7. What to do with a positive result? You can assume it was a mistake (especially if your child denies using drugs) and try the test again. You can avail yourself of still other tests for a fuller picture (e.g., for pregnancy, honesty, intelligence, patriotism, cholesterol). Staying with the high tech motif you can equip your child with a beeper, satellite geographical location monitor and world wide web video transmitter so you can always know where he or she is and see what they are doing. As a further deterrent you could obtain a drug addicted drug sniffing dog who might double as a family pet (but be on guard for unseemly alliances between the child and the pet). You can also sue the school for providing an unhealthy climate or you can go directly to the police.
  8. What to do if the child asks why he or she is singled out for testing? That can easily be prevented by testing everyone in the family. Not only would this lower the cost of testing, it is consistent with contemporary family values which stress equality and sharing. If aspiring politicians can challenge each other to drug tests, family members can do no less. Given the cloud of suspicion that hangs over those who were young adults in the 1960s, the case is particularly strong for testing grandparents. In fact if this isn't done, family conflict may increase.
  9. What protections then should parents take to avoid a test-escalation war with their children? This can be a problem. It was only a decade ago when the police-drug-education-presence in schools led to many cases of children turning in their parents because of suspicious three-pronged leaf plants in the house. Hotlines for reporting every variety of problem are very egalitarian in their availability. However a stern lecture warning children about the importance of communication and trust in the family can solve that problem.
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