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Massachusetts Medical Society




In 1989, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall surmised that “declaring a war on illegal drugs is good public policy . . . [but] the first, and worst, casualty of war will be the precious liberties of our citizens.” The same year, in the midst of President George Bush's “war on drugs,” the Medical University of South Carolina initiated a program to screen selected pregnant patients for cocaine and to provide positive test results to the police. At a time of high public concern about “cocaine babies,” this program seemed reasonable to the university and local public officials. Drug-screening programs in other groups of people had been found constitutional by the Supreme Court, and it was beginning to appear that the war on drugs would claim the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches, as one of its first casualties.

In this context, it seemed as if the university's policy might survive a constitutional challenge — and it did in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which in 1999 rejected a challenge to the policy. In March 2001, however, the Supreme Court found that the policy was constitutionally deficient.


From The New England Journal of Medicine, George J. Annas, Testing Poor Pregnant Women for Cocaine: Physicians as Police Investigators, Volume 344, Page 1729 Copyright ©(2001) Massachusetts Medical Society. Reprinted with permission.

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