WASHINGTON — Random drug testing is credited with substantially reducing the rate of narcotics abuse in the US military. It has forced thousands of American workers to choose between marijuana and a paycheck. It's helping to keep paroled felons on the straight and narrow.
Now, a mother in Marietta, Ga., wants to know why the same tough tactic can't be used to protect those Americans most vulnerable to illegal drugs - children.
The mother, Sunny Cloud, is president of a business called Parents' Alert, a company that sells a $40 home-based drug-testing kit. In more than two years of business, she has sold roughly 1,000 kits entirely by word of mouth to parents desperately seeking a solution to this growing national problem.
But Mrs. Cloud's approach is stirring considerable controversy. The US Food and Drug Administration wants to shut her down.
Officials are concerned that parents may not possess the expertise to administer the tests and interpret results. Other critics think it is just a bad idea. Some drug-abuse experts and civil libertarians are asking whether we really want to treat our children like Army recruits, employees, and paroled felons.
"This is a parents' rights issue," Cloud says. "If my test is good enough to be given in the workplace, why isn't it good enough to be given in the home?"
She adds, "I'm not trying to make trouble for anyone, but I think parents will work hardest to keep their kids off drugs. If it means parents having a drug test to keep their kids clean and sober, then I think we should have access to drug tests."
Cloud says she came up with the idea for parent-administered drug tests after she discovered in 1992 that her junior-high-age son was smoking marijuana. She rushed him to the local hospital emergency room for a drug test. "It was humiliating and expensive," she says.
She developed a drug test of her own and forced her son to submit to random checks. "Now he has a B average in college and is a totally different person."
The key for her: "It is a zero tolerance stance," she says of her drug tests. "He also knew that I loved him enough to take a stance."
Experts in countering drug abuse disagree on the potential usefulness of such drug tests. But all agree that drug tests alone won't solve the problem.
Federal drug czar Barry McCaffrey says drug tests combined with drug education and prevention proved effective in the military in the 1970s, and in the workplace in the 1980s. But he says it's not the "magic pill" of the 1990s.
The essential element, he says, is that parents must communicate to their children that they will not tolerate drug use. "Now how do parents go about making that case? I would argue, five days a week have supper with your children and listen to them. And on Sundays, go to church - pick a church at random - and spend Sunday together as a family. I would argue that is much more useful than catching them on a [urine] test on Monday morning," Mr. McCaffrey says.
"But, on the other hand," he says, "I think families ought to make up their own minds about it. We have home pregnancy tests, home AIDS tests. Maybe we need a home drug test."
Rick Evans of the National Family Partnership, a St. Louis-based coalition of parents' groups dedicated to fighting drug abuse, agrees that it takes more than a test. "A drug test can't replace old-fashioned communication between a parent and a child," he says. "The best method to help keep a child drug free is to know your children, know their friends, be involved in their activities, and have a meaningful dialogue about their interests and behavior."
Other experts see only pitfalls from drug testing by parents.
"The thought of having worried parents start doing this test and creating havoc... I have a vision of catastrophe and miscommunication in the family," says Rosalind Brannigan, vice president of Drug Strategies in Washington.
"There is nothing that can take the place of a good parent-child relationship. That is where the time and effort should go, so the child has the confidence to resist the pressures in the community," Ms. Brannigan says. "Otherwise, you end up with the parent being the policeman, and that has not been ... an effective method of prevention."
Cloud's drug tests aren't actually home drug tests. What parents purchase from Cloud is a collection cup - for the child's urine - a tamper-proof jar, a mailing label, and the services of a government-certified laboratory. The sample is mailed to the lab where it is checked for the presence of seven major drugs.
The testing procedure is confidential, with all samples identified only by a code number, so parents don't have to worry about the creation of medical files that might follow a child.
Although some drug experts have reservations about Cloud's idea, her biggest opponent remains the FDA. Officials at the agency have classified Cloud's test kit as a "Class III medical device" akin to highly regulated equipment such as pacemakers or CAT scan machines. Officials say the agency is simply trying to verify that Cloud's test isn't dangerous. Cloud says the agency wants to bankrupt her because they disagree philosophically with the idea of forcing children to submit to drug tests.
"It really doesn't have to do with parents and kids per se," says Marcia Meyer, an FDA spokeswoman. "Within the larger picture the question is, is it a safe and effective product?"
FDA officials say their largest concern is that doctors or other health professionals are not available to explain results to parents and offer advice on what action may be appropriate.
Rep. Thomas Bliley Jr. (R) of Virginia told the House Commerce Committee last week that the FDA was "clinging to the indefensible notion that American families are not competent to [do the test] ... and then deal in a responsible manner with the results."
But Lew Maltby, a drug-testing expert with the American Civil Liberties Union in New York says some parents may jump to the wrong conclusion by not attempting to verify positive test results through a qualified physician. "There is a serious risk that home tests are going to end up stigmatizing a lot of innocent kids as drug abusers," he says.
*Faye Bowers contributed to this report from Boston.