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NM tests high schools’ wastewater for drugs without clear plan for results


On an afternoon with blowing dust and sideways snow, two people in bright yellow vests and heavy winter clothes worked over an open manhole in the brush behind Belen High School.

“Ice packs to make sure that everything stays cold. Not that that’s a problem right now,” said Tom Brown, an employee with Eastern Research Group, a company that the state of New Mexico is contracting with to test the wastewater from schools.

He and a state employee lowered tubes down into the sewer, then suspended a barrel-shaped device at the top. This rig pulled samples throughout the next school day.

“We’re going to take 32 samples every fifteen minutes. That’s 8 hours’ worth of samples,” Brown said.

This is happening across the state. Back in September, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed an executive order to address gun violence and illegal drug use.

The order made national news for banning guns in public places. That was struck down within the week by a judge, but the order was broad and included many other mandates.

One of them is this: wastewater testing at nearly every high school. The governor said this will tell the state which communities need its attention most, but no one at the state level has laid out a clear plan for what they will do with the information once they have it. Advocates say that raises red flags.

Jonas Armstrong, director of strategic initiatives with the New Mexico Environment Department, said schools reflect their communities, and that’s why it makes sense to test them.

“It can tell us that a substance is present. It can't tell us who is using it. It can't tell us how many people are using it,” he said.

The process tests for fifteen different opioids and stimulants, and only gives a positive or negative read. Some of the substances officials are testing for can also show up for legal substances. For example, amphetamine is an ingredient in the drug Adderall, as well as methamphetamine.

The state posts results online as it receives them and expects to be done with its first round in March. The testing costs have run about $600,000 so far, and the department is asking for more to continue it.

“There's been a lot of wastewater testing for illicit substances in different ways in different places around the country around the world,” Armstrong said.

Wastewater testing for drugs has existed for decades and is more popular in Europe and Australia. Since COVID-19 began, it has become more accepted and common in the U.S., especially for municipalities and universities.

But not for schools with minors.

Carlton Poindexter does research measuring contaminants with the United States Department of Agriculture and teaches at Howard University. He said hopefully, this will lead to more resources for kids who need it, but he said there is a risk of stigmatizations.

“And if that community already has some other overlapping stigmatizations and perceptions ... that just kind of adds on to it.

And he echoed the fear of many in these communities that it could lead to more police in schools.

“Especially with marginalized communities, they usually don’t have the best experiences with authority figures and police officers,” he said.

Poindexter said an evidence-based approach should start with the community.

“How aware are they of it and how much say do they have in this process? And should the results come back positive or high, how do they want outside bodies to potentially respond and work with them to address that issue?” he said.

Activists like Mikyle Gray with the Southwest Organizing Project in Albuquerque say the state does consult with community-based organizations on ideas for cutting down on illegal drug use. But with the wastewater testing, it feels like that work is falling on deaf ears.

“It doesn't provide any solutions. It doesn't provide ways for people who are addicted to find support or treatment,” he said.

He and his colleague Amanda Gallegos said it’s not news that these drugs are in New Mexico schools. Gallegos said what shocks her is the price tag. She said that money could’ve gone elsewhere.

“I could name a couple things off the top of my head,” she said.

Gallegos said teens need places to go, like a teen center or jobs. They also need more counselors in schools and treatment – there’s not a lot available in New Mexico for young people dealing with addiction. The state has an ongoing shortage of counselors in schools.

“The solution should come from the impacted people,” she said.

This coverage is made possible by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. 

Wastewater testing, drug testing, high schools