Federal agency investigating OHSU study of drugs, athletes

The Associated Press

By WILLIAM McCALL

PORTLAND - A study aimed at determining whether random drug tests discourage drug use among high school athletes is under investigation by a federal agency that regulates research, officials said Wednesday.

A spokeswoman for the Office for Human Research Protections confirmed that the agency began its investigation of the Oregon Health & Science University study in May, several weeks before a class-action lawsuit was filed against OHSU and 14 Oregon school districts. The lawsuit claims students have been harassed or coerced into taking part in the study.

But the Office for Human Research Protections, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, cannot release details until the investigation is complete, said spokeswoman Pat El-Hinnawy in Rockville, Md. ``I can tell you, in general terms, that we investigate on the basis of whether institutions are in compliance with regulations,'' El-Hinnawy said. The three-year, $3.6 million study funded by the National Institutes of Health is entering its third year.

OHSU researchers, led by Dr. Linn Goldberg, designed the study to determine how widespread drug and alcohol use is among high school athletes, and whether random testing reduces it.

Athletes at seven participating high schools face random urine tests for drugs and breath tests for alcohol. Students at six other schools serve as a control group with no drug testing. Another school dropped out of the study. OHSU officials said they received a routine questionnaire on the study from the Office for Human Research Protections, and after replying, the institution received a follow-up questionnaire.

``When I looked over the list of questions, they were primarily things that appeared in the media last year,'' said OHSU spokesman Martin Munguia. ``They wanted to know what's really behind these allegations, so we're in process of responding to that latest set of questions,'' Munguia said. Controversy over drug testing has generated media attention since the study began, Munguia said, but researchers have made every effort to protect privacy and make sure all participants understand and accept the terms of the study.

But a lawsuit filed June 28 in U.S. District Court in Oregon alleges that thousands of high school students were forced to take part in the study and suffered ``psychological, social and economic harm.''

The lawsuit also seeks an injunction to halt the study, called Saturn - short for Student Athletic Testing Using Random Notification.

``Once they look at this study, they'll conclude there were ethical lapses and the study should not have proceeded the way it did,'' said Alan Milstein, an attorney in Pennsauken, N.J., who is leading the lawsuit. He said there was no evidence of a serious drug problem in Oregon schools before the study, so ``it's ludicrous'' to spend $3.6 million to find out what educators already know, or already prevent.

``We have to limit trivial research that is not done to improve science or medicine but just to do research,'' Milstein said. The U.S. Supreme Court recently upheld random drug tests for high school students.

Drug tests in Oregon are up to individual school districts because there is no statewide policy on testing, said Barb Wolfe, spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Education.