The federal drug director is urging schools to offer help to students who use drugs, not just toss them out.
Guidelines in a report released Thursday by the Office of National Drug Control Policy urge treatment and counseling for drug-using high schoolers rather than simply suspending or expelling them.
"The goal is to say we believe we can do a better job of making kids healthy," said John P. Walters, who directs the office. Kicking students out of school without treatment can create "drug-using dropouts," an even bigger problem, the report said.
The advice challenges policies in many districts to automatically suspend or expel students caught with drugs.
The new policy was announced a day after the agency released a separate report in Miami showing a decline in first-time marijuana users last year.
While that study found fewer adolescents are first-time marijuana users than in previous years, it said those that are risk succumbing to long-term drug addiction.
"Marijuana is not the soft drug," Walters said. He said government, community agencies and parents must marshal their powers to prevent and treat marijuana abuse.
According to the study, 62 percent of cocaine users aged 26 or older were first-time marijuana users by the age of 14.
The idea that marijuana leads to harder drugs was challenged by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, based in Washington D.C., which said only one out of every 104 first-time marijuana users ever uses heroin or cocaine.
While the study released Thursday provides guidelines for handling student drug users, final decisions on what to do remain in the hands of school districts.
Dan Langan, an Education Department spokesman, said, "The guide is a tool and it's a helpful tool, but how a district and a school choose to implement any recommendations in the guide is up to them."
Kathleen Lyons, spokeswoman for the National Education Association, said her group would back the new guidelines.
"That's what we would endorse, helping kids, not simply punishing them," she said. "It doesn't do anybody any good just to take a drug test and kick the kid out of school — where's he going to go? It doesn't solve anyone's problem and may in fact worsen it."
The guide says schools should "proceed with caution" when testing students for drugs, making sure they "have a good idea of precisely what drugs their students are using" before beginning testing.
The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in June that schools can require students to submit to drug tests before participating in competitive after-school activities, even if they have no particular reason to suspect wrongdoing. Drug tests had been allowed previously just for student athletes.
That decision gave schools a free hand to test more than half the estimated 14 million American high school students. The court stopped short of allowing random tests for any student, but several justices have indicated they are interested in answering that question at some point.
Many schools test athletes for drugs, but wider drug testing remains relatively rare among the nation's 15,500 public school districts.
The new guide cautioned that the decision to implement a testing program shouldn't be left up to an individual or even a school board, but should include public input, including that of opponents.