Sooner or later, we need to respond to the fact that we have an epidemic of substance abuse that is taking a real toll on the lives of young people in America.
These are not, by the way, only inner city or impoverished teens who wish to escape the realities of economic or social hardships. They are also suburban young men and women with every opportunity and resource. And they are not using only alcohol and marijuana (although these would be concerning enough).
They are snorting heroin, which is now plentiful in every single community in America. They are grinding up and snorting Adderall, the medication used to treat attention deficit disorder. They are taking prescription drugs bought on the streets or stolen from their parents—medications like Klonopin and Percocet. They are sniffing household cleaning supplies and aerosol products. They are buying and using products like Salvia from the Internet. They are doing anything and everything they can to get high. They are hooked.
The problem is everywhere. Every psychiatrist in America sees such teenagers. Every internist in America sees such teenagers. And every teacher in America teaches such teenagers. Again: I believe that’s quite literally every, single teacher in America.
The reasons for this obvious epidemic of drug abuse in teenagers are many. One of them is certainly the degree to which our culture now embraces the flight from reality: It could be argued that we’re all getting ourselves high on technology, the Internet, reality TV and a nearly complete flight from the grounding principles of thrift and personal responsibility. Another is the cheap, plentiful and potent supply of illicit drugs. Another may be increasing rates of underlying and painful disorders like depression.
With data so readily available to confirm the high percentage of secondary school students using illicit substances, it is now imperative to test students for illicit drug use. I believe we should begin with high school athletes competing on junior varsity and varsity sports teams. Results would be private, made available only to the student and a physician designated by the student’s parents, or to the parents themselves.
The reason for selecting athletes (to start) is that, in anticipating opposition from groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, I believe the case can be made that the potential for head injuries and other injuries in competitive sports argues that athletes comprise a special, at-risk population; athletes on drugs are athletes who can get badly hurt, or hurt others. In addition, participation in such sports is entirely voluntary. Anyone who wishes not to be drug tested would have the option of not participating in them.
The benefits are obvious: We would be making a dent in drug use in our public schools. Doctors and parents would be alerted to drug use in their children. Parents could then choose whether to tie further participation in team sports to their kids getting help and getting clean. And we would be making a statement about what it takes to be a team player, do one’s best, respect one’s body and really “show up” to compete.
One other thing: Coaches and assistant coaches should be encouraged to get tested, too, and show the results to their teams. It’s hard enough to lead from the sidelines. It’s impossible as a hypocrite.
Participating in team sports is a privilege, not a right. Let’s start to tie it to being drug free. That’s at least a start toward ridding our schools of the epidemic of drug use that is now running rampant and entirely unchecked inside them.
Keith Ablow, MD is a psychiatrist, and was host of the nationally-syndicated "Dr. Keith Ablow Show." He is a former member of the Fox News Medical A Team.