Russia divided over drug tests for schoolchildren

Russian children who are barely in their teens could face drug tests at school as the country has a severe problem with the number of addicts – and most start their habit early.

­Now, all Russians can take a drug test voluntarily, but if Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has his way, hundreds of thousands of students – and even schoolchildren as young as 13 – will face mandatory testing.

“A lot of parents are saying that compulsory drug testing is unethical, but I think what is behind their reluctance is an unwillingness to face the problem, which prevents their children from receiving proper treatment,” Medvedev said. “Our country has not dealt with this problem.”

Compulsory drug testing in educational establishments has already been piloted in several Russian regions, although so far only voluntary testing schemes for minors have been approved countrywide.

Fuelled in part by an influx of drugs from Afghanistan, it is estimated that there are over 3 million regular illegal drug users in Russia, most of them under the age of 25.

Despite protests from human rights groups fearing the stigmatization of young children by their association with illicit drugs, officials insist testing must start at school.

“We want to catch people not when they are drug addicts, but when they are younger and have just tried drugs, to ascertain whether there might be a potential risk for developing an addiction,” said Evgeny Bryun, chief narcologist at the Russian Ministry of Health.

The initiative has raised questions of not just ethics, but effectiveness.

At a voluntary rehabilitation center for young people near Moscow, there is skepticism about testing.

I don't think it would have changed anything for me when I was in school,” says one of the rehab patients.“I wanted to take drugs at the time, so I just did. Toward the end of school, I wasn't even hiding my drug use that much.

"I am categorically against these tests – I remember my own reaction to them," says another patient. "Tests will alienate and provoke the user, making him trust those around him even less. Also, some will cheat, and that will give them a sense of invincibility.”

Psychologists at the center say the proposals do not go far enough because they do not address treatment.

“This measure will just give us the statistics of who takes drugs, not the solution,” said psychologist Mikhail Ebziev. “Are they going to kick out those who fail? Where will those students go? What are they going to do to treat them?”

At the moment there are only 160 state-sponsored drug rehabilitation clinics in all of Russia – about one for every one million Russians.

Hundreds of new ones would have to be built, and thousands more addiction specialists trained simply to cope with the surge of patients identified by compulsory drug tests.

Drug testing in educational institutions may well be a step in the right direction. But the authorities have to prove that beyond the headline-grabbing measures, they really have a program that can stop people from trying drugs at an ever-earlier age.

And it is something that governments both here and abroad have tried and failed to do before.