The bane of drug testing

Dr. Ponio is the executive director of Metro Psych Facility and Roads and Bridges to Recovery Drug Treatment and Rehabilitation Center. She is the founding and current president of the Group for Addiction Psychiatry in the Philippines. This article was published in the Yellow Pad column of BusinessWorld, January 17, 2005 edition, p. 22.

Another new year has unfolded. A new year that hopefully will be a better one than the last.

The new year also means that two months from now I am going to observe
another birthday that so happens to coincide with the expiry of my
driver’s license which I will have to renew perfunctorily. During the
renewal process, I will need to undergo a mandatory drug test by virtue
of Section 36 of the implementing rules and regulations (IRR) of the
Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002 (RA 9165).

It is upon studying this section of the republic act that I have often
wondered how many have tested positive for drugs during such tests. An
associate of mine went to verify the numbers with Pasig’s DrugWatch and
not surprisingly, as of November 2004, nobody has yet tested positive.

In my own logic, if I were a drug user, I would not even think of
renewing my license knowing that I would test positive for drugs;
instead, postponing it until such time that I know I would be
“substantially clean” to successfully undergo the drug test. The fine
of P35 for late renewal is a small price to pay in lieu of suffering a
six-month program in a government drug rehabilitation center for being
reported as positive drug user under the same law.

I have worked with recovering substance abusers for the last 13 years
of my life. And among them, I have discovered the smartest and most
paranoid people I have ever met among long-term drug users and I have
yet to find one who would fall for this trap except maybe those who
have just started to use illegal drugs.

Yet when one takes recent vehicular accident statistics into account,
only 18% of vehicular accidents can be attributed to drugs (e.g.,
marijuana and cocaine), these “drivers/drug-users” are not responsible
for most vehicular accidents. In the United States, it is the
alcohol-related vehicular accident that kills someone every 30 minutes
and injures someone every two minutes. Nearly two-thirds of children
under 15 who died in alcohol-related crashes between 1985 and 1996 were
riding with an inebriated driver. More than two-thirds of the
intoxicated drivers were old enough to be the parent of the child who
was killed, and fewer than 20% of the children killed were properly
restrained at the time of the crash.
One can only speculate whether they were tested for drugs or alcohol
during the issuance or renewal of their driver’s license. Maybe, just
maybe, the ones issuing licenses (the United States’ DMV, in this case)
find it irrelevant despite the staggering statistics.

I am uncertain whether our esteemed lawmakers studied the Philippines’
vehicular accident statistics before they came up with a law that makes
taxpayers shell out P250 to have their urine tested prior to the
renewal of their driver’s license.

If they did (which is doubtful, owing to the lack of any source for
such information), they would probably realize that there is more sense
in performing random testing of drivers involved in traffic accidents
and violations for alcohol and drug levels. Note that, there are more
alcohol-related vehicular accidents compared to those of other drugs.

In conducting a standard premeditated drug test, the element of
unpredictability or randomness is eliminated thus giving the “drug
testee” a chance to postpone, avoid or prepare for an impending drug
test. In most cases, since driving is a major source of income for
those operating tricycles, jeepneys and taxicabs, postponing or
avoiding the test could mean an abrupt halt in their means of
livelihood; so preparation for the drug tests remains as the most
viable solution to sustain their income.

To prepare for a drug test is relatively easy if one is crafty enough
to cheat the drug test by using any resourceful means whatsoever, or if
one is ready to invest a small amount to bribe the drug tester. Since
Filipinos are known to be highly inventive and resourceful people, it
is not beneath them to invent a crude contraption that could secrete
fake urine into the tester’s bottle or devise a technique of swapping
their own urine bottles with some others’ containing “clean” urine. It
does not help either to know that the Philippines is one of the many
Third World countries where corruption in the government is ubiquitous,
making it effortlessly convenient to relinquish money to an official to
get what one wants.

In medicine, we manage our patients guided by evidence based on
treatment guidelines that have gone through rigorous scrutiny from
those who proposed them, to the panel consumers, and by experts that
have approved them prior to having it published. I am not a lawyer and
I am supposed to trust those who craft our laws to have studied every
aspect of any act that they propose in congress. But when I look at
something as ridiculous as this, I begin to doubt the efficacy and
reliability of our laws.

Might we want to reconsider amending them?

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