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President Clinton Calls for Drug Testing Minors Seeking Their Driver's License


November 1996

In a second term, President Clinton promised to seek a national policy requiring states to drug test would-be drivers under age 18 before they can get their driver's license (John F. Harris and Blaine Harden, "Clinton Wants Minors Seeking Driver's License Tested for Drugs," Washington Post, October 20, 1996, p. A19).

"Our message should be simple: no drugs, or no driver's license," Clinton said on October 19 in his weekly radio address. White House aides said they assumed the plan would require legislation, but none has been drafted yet. Aides said they did not know if the federal government would mandate drug testing or encourage it through a system of threats and incentives -- such as tying federal highway funds to its implementation. Clinton said he was directing the national drug control policy director, Barry McCaffrey, and Transportation Secretary Federico Pena to study the issue and present their findings in 90 days.

Arthur Spitzer, the legal director for the Washington chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the idea seemed like "the latest wretched excess in the war against drugs." According to Spitzer, if the testing is done only once, a teenager would simply have to avoid drug use in the weeks prior to getting a driver's license, making Clinton's proposal a triumph of "symbolism over reality."

Eric E. Sterling, President of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, was interviewed on this proposal on Fox Channel News on the "Hannity and Colmes Show" on October 22. He made the following points:

This proposal arises out of political cynicism. If there were a urine test for political cynicism, Bill Clinton would test positive.

About 3.4 million teenagers will turn 16 next year, and most of them will seek drivers' licenses. There also will be 17-year-olds who don't have drivers' licenses who will seek them. Thus, perhaps 3 million drug tests per year will be given. At a rate of 1% false positives, this means 30,000 false positives. These are not the positives for poppyseed cake, of course. These are completely clean kids. Some of these kids in fact will be outspokenly anti-drug, and whose parents are proud of them. What is the reaction when the government's drug test comes back positive? How do Mom and Dad react? What or who do they believe? The positive drug test or their daughter's denials? I fear that many kids are likely to be emotionally scarred by the false accusations of drug use, and that some kids may attempt suicide out of their shame.

What kind of confidentiality controls does this proposal envision? A bunch of kids go to get a license, but not all of them get a license. People will ask why. Is the school notified if a kid tests positive? Are the parents notified directly? Are the local police notified? Is the kid automatically referred to drug treatment or drug counseling?

Think a little about the costs. Three million tests per year at $20 for a screen equals $60 million. Who pays? Many kids might be able to afford the test. But what about the kids for whom this is a burden?

What's the point of this proposal? Besides reelecting Bill Clinton? It is to prevent kids from using drugs. Shouldn't we look at our drug education programs? DARE, a $750 million a year program, has been proven ineffective.

How will the tests be administered? To assure no tampering, these tests need to be supervised, and if urine tests, it can be pretty humiliating for teenagers -- for anyone -- to have their urination supervised by another.

This won't do much for highway safety. This is not a performance test. It is a one time test. It is not so much a drug test but an IQ test -- if you can't figure out that you shouldn't use drugs the week before your driver's license urine test, you might not be bright enough to get a driver's license.

How do we best protect highway safety from drug use? Use actual impairment testing -- it also catches over-the-counter remedies that can impair the ability to drive safely.