Students’ drug use — do we know what we’re talking about?

May 29, 2018

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Composition — Marium Ali
Composition — Marium Ali

“I think it is unfair that everyone is tested and that all drugs are treated the same. Many of my friends and I do weed. It’s not addictive, it doesn’t incapacitate you, it’s not expensive, and it’s harmless. To me, it’s ridiculous that cigarettes are legal and weed is not. We like to smoke after a particularly difficult exam or just when we’re hanging out. What harm is it doing anyone,” says Zarak, a bachelors’ student in Islamabad.

This year, the National Assembly received two bills mandating drug tests for school and college students in the capital. Both these bills are likely to lapse when the assembly dissolves on May 31, but parliamentarians have increasingly demanded mandatory drug testing.

However, neither of the bills appear interested in the nuance that Zarak points out above. In fact, only one of the bills even defines what it means when it talks about ‘drugs’.

The definition of what substances would qualify as drugs is critical to any potential legislation, especially one that imposes sweeping tests on students.

While the claim that marijuana is not addictive or harmful is questionable, the argument that there must be an elaborate understanding of drugs — and distinction among them — is a strong one. After all, there is a marked difference in the health risks associated with drugs such as marijuana and other substances.

Titled the Compulsory Drug Test of Students Act 2018, the bill moved by PML-N MNA Asiya Naz Tanoli deals with the issue summarily, without getting into much detail. It states that annual tests should be conducted in all colleges and universities, but does not provide any further information. Ms Tanoli could not be reached for comment despite repeated attempts.

The Prevention of Drugs in Educational Institutions Act 2018 tabled by PPP MNA Shahida Rehmani is relatively more thorough, though still not comprehensive. The bill is meant to be enforced in both public and private universities, as well as in high schools — defined as “9th grade to second year, O and A levels” — in the Islamabad Capital Territory and areas under the administrative control of the federal government.

The bill holds educational institutions responsible for conducting — and paying for — unannounced tests at least once a year, and for providing “sufficient evidence” of the tests to the government upon request.

Penalties have been suggested for failing to abide by the law, which include penalising institutions that do not administer the tests and barring students, who fail to take them, from sitting for their exams.

‘We simply do not have the numbers to justify such a move’

Ms Tanoli’s bill states: “There are reports that students of Universities and Colleges are using drugs and this trend is increasing day by day therefore, we need to control this trend.”

Ms Rehmani’s “aims to discourage rampant drug usage among students and strenthens the universities in their drug prevention role”.

Almost all the experts that Dawn spoke to agreed that there has not been any research that could substantiate this claim.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) conducted the last comprehensive survey of drug use in the country in 2013, which found that drug use was more common among those aged between 25 to 39 than 15 to 24 — the age bracket these legislations target.

Two standing committee reports on bills to drug-testing students in the capital will be taken up today, just days before the National Assembly dissolves. While these bills are likely to lapse, the demand for such a policy may be heard again in the future. The policy has been discussed by parliamentary committees over the past year and proposed in Sindh and Balochistan. This report explores the underlying claims of increased drug use among students in the capital, the effectiveness of such a policy and the capability of the government to see it through.

A senior Anti-Narcotics Force (ANF) officer, when posed the same question, said that there were no formal studies that would suggest an increase in younger drug abusers, but based on the number of patients treated at the ANF rehabilitation centre, it does not seem likely that there has been a surge.

“We simply do not have the numbers to justify such a move,” he said.

Secretary, Punjab Education Department, Dr Allah Bakhsh Malik said that no formal research had been carried but a committee recently formed by the government which included officials from the education department, police, narcotics and intelligence had made alarming findings.

He claimed the problem of “drug addiction” was particularly acute in elite schools.

“There could be a case or two in schools, but I don’t think drug addiction in schools and colleges is the way the media is projecting it,” said Private Schools Association President Zofran Elahi.

“It’s possible at the university level, but up to FSc college — if it happens — it must not be common.”

Asked if he felt there had been an increase in drug use amongst his peers, Ahmed, 21 — who said he began using drugs when he was 17 or 18 — said: “Yes, it has increased. It’s bad. It’s really easy to get now; there’s a dealer on every corner, three or four in every sector.”

“I don’t know if it’s the move from school to university or if it’s becoming more common. I think it’s the latter because I have younger siblings who understand the idea better than I did [at that age]. For me, I might not have had access to drugs when I was in my A Levels, but now I know where to get something if I wanted it,” said Alia*, a university student.

According to Dr Asma Humayun, a consultant psychiatrist, it does seem that ‘unofficially’ the problem is growing.

“I have done some work with a few leading educational institutions, and the [results] are alarming,” she said.

However, most of the discussion around an increase in drug use among younger people in Pakistan is anecdotal, said Dr Kamran Niaz, an epidemiologist with the UNODC Research Branch in Vienna.

He added: “Moreover in Pakistan, there have not been any time series, a repeated survey on drug use that is based on the established scientific methodology of conducting school surveys on drug use. Due to this, we can neither establish a baseline nor any trends in use.”

‘Students are our future’

“We have no other option. Students are getting side-tracked, and police, teachers and the government tried to curb the problem but could not,” Ms Rehmani said.

“Students are our future, and the whole nation is responsible for them.”

When asked about drug use amongst her peers Sana, an A-Levels student, said: “Many students do drugs at our campus. It’s not new; it’s something we have grown up with.

“But it doesn’t mean you will start misusing drugs when you associate with those who do. I think most of us have a clear idea of who we are and I don’t think peer pressure or wanting to blend in is such a big factor.”

Another high school student, Rabia*, added: “Teachers say don’t do drugs, but that’s where it stops. They put up posters, but they don’t understand why we do drugs. I think a lot of us — while being privileged Islamabadi teenagers — are depressed.

“Why? It’s because of school, because of the expectations and the pressure. Then they tell us, ‘don’t do drugs’; they organise a seminar. I’m sorry, it doesn’t work that way.”

‘A deterrent’

An important question that arises from the proposed legislation is whether a policy to test students for drugs would be an effective preventive measure.

In an emailed response to questions posed by Dawn, Dr Humayun and Dr Niaz said most of the literature on substance abuse prevention does not include drug testing as a useful measure in preventing drug use.

Drug testing is considered an invasive exercise that requires investment to ensure that there are enough laboratory resources to confirm and reconfirm a range of substances, as well as rule out false positives.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s (Unesco) 2017 booklet How the Education Sector should respond to the Substance Use Issue states: “Evidence in support of drug testing students in school is very limited, with most studies showing no preventative effect. Weighed against the many concerns (e.g. expense, alcohol and tobacco is not tested, significant ethical considerations concerning student privacy, and the possibility of harm due to punitive actions that reduce school engagement), this measure is not recommended.”

Dr Humayun and Dr Niaz added that effective prevention requires younger people to have a caring and nurturing environment. Punitive measures and mandatory drug testing mostly have the opposite effect.

In the absence of science-based prevention programmes, an annual drug test, even if done randomly, would in no way yield any benefits, and would not serve any deterrence, they said.

Mandatory testing as a deterrent, however, has been brought up by proponents of the policy.

Senator Rehman Malik, who has also proposed drug testing students, when asked said: “When you are a student, you’re scared. If the test is there, the student will be afraid of their parents and teachers finding out about their drug use.”

Dr Allah Bakhsh Malik told Dawn these tests “will act as a deterrent”.

“I feel like if this happens, you’re getting checked, and a lot of kids might not get into it in the first place,” said Alia*.

“I wouldn’t be comfortable [having to give a drug test]; I would reduce my use, but I wouldn’t stop completely. Of course, I would be uncomfortable because I may test positive, and my parents will have to see it,” said Ahmed*.

(*Names have been changed to protect identities)

Published in Dawn, May 29th, 2018