Home Drug Tests Stir Talk at Kitchen Table

Brooke Hartley says that if her mother ever took a snip of her hair for a home drug test she would have a simple reply: It's an invasion of privacy. Forget about parental prerogative.

While the Connecticut high school junior admits home drug tests could be a deterrent, she balks at the idea of an unannounced test around the kitchen table.

"I believe there are much better ways to deal with questions about drugs," she says.

The dramatic rise in drug use among adolescents has prompted many parents to contemplate testing their children. Starting in May, they can easily do it.

For the first time, home drug tests - previously available only by mail order - will be sold over the counter nationwide at pharmacies and discount stores. In six months, a home Breathalyzer will also be available.

These products will give parents the same potent front-line defense that has decreased drug use in the armed forces and the workplace. But some parents also seem them as a chemical bludgeon that could damage family relationships, when what's really needed is simple communication and trust.

Manufacturers have already begun shipping two tests to wholesalers nationwide. Dr. Brown's Home Drug Testing System is a urinalysis test that can determine whether someone has used marijuana, cocaine, or six other commonly used illegal drugs during the previous three days. The PDT-90 Personal Drug Testing Service is a hair-analysis system that can detect drug use within the previous three months. Both manufacturers say they were inspired by parents anxious for another tool to combat drug use.

"It's a parents right and responsibility to protect their kids against drugs. The stakes here are very high," says Ray Kubacki, president and CEO of the Psychemedics Corp., which produces the hair-analysis test. Based in Cambridge, Mass., Psychemedics has done corporate drug testing since 1987.

ADVOCATES of home tests contend they give parents the tools and background they need to take full responsibility in the fight to keep their kids drug free.

Both products are marketed as "systems" that emphasize communication and drug education before any tests are given. They also have counselors standing by with referral information when the results are given to the parents, confidentially.

"This is going to be somewhat of a task for many parents because we've been inclined as a group to defer that responsibility to teachers, police officers, physicians, psychologists, and politicians. And that has been a major, major part of the problem," says J. Theodore Brown, a father and clinical psychologist who designed the only FDA approved over-the-counter urinalysis test.

Many parents, like Brooke's mother, Lisa, are intrigued by the idea of a home drug tests, but also wary.

"I think it would be very tempting as a parent, but I wouldn't use one," says Ms. Hartley. "I think their privacy is probably one of the most important things that a child has during those years, when they feel like their life is not their own, even though it should be."

Many psychologists also worry about the impact drug testing could have on a family that is not already getting professional help.

"Kids who end up having a serious drug problem usually don't come out of the head of Zeus," says Steven Ceresnie, a Michigan psychologist who works with adolescents. "It usually has something to do with what's going on or not going on in the family they're growing up in."

But for many parents, the threat of substance abuse is so pervasive and pernicious that a home drug test provides a much-needed "second line of defense" when simple communication fails.

"If you have a child that's not using drugs and you ask him, he'll say 'no.' And if you have a child who is using drugs and you ask him, he'll also say 'no,' " says Sunny Cloud, who started the first mail-order drug-testing business after she came home and caught her 14-year-old son smoking marijuana. "This levels the playing field and gives parents the power to know what's really going on."

Other parents believe regular drug testing will also give their kids a way to avoid peer pressure: It makes it easier for them to say "no" to friends out of fear of getting caught.

But parents on all sides of the debate agree the best way to prevent substance abuse is to become educated themselves about drugs, then begin teaching children as young as kindergarten to be aware of their hazards. Trust and open communication are also vital.

"With my kids, I basically said, 'Don't lie to me. If you lie to me you're going to be grounded for a very long time. But if you tell me what's really going on, we'll discuss it honestly and openly,' " says Marianne Lee, a mother of two who is also the director of alcohol studies at the Harvard School of Public Health. "They quickly realized they were much better off telling me, before I found out from someone else."

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