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Drug Tests for Unemployment Checks? Just Cheap Political Theater

As the money crunch punishes states coffers, legislators are callously pushing drug testing for welfare and unemployment recipients.
 
 
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With states across the country feeling the effects of the economic crisis gripping the land, some legislators are engaging in the cheap politics of resentment as a supposed budget-cutting move. In at least six states, bills have been filed that would require people seeking public assistance and/or unemployment benefits to submit to random drug testing, with their benefits at stake.

In Arizona, Hawaii, Missouri, and Oklahoma, bills have been filed that would force people seeking public assistance to undergo random drug tests and forego benefits if they test positive. In Florida, a bill has been filed to do the same to people who receive unemployment compensation. In West Virginia, both groups are targeted.

In most cases, legislators are pointing to the 1996 federal Welfare Reform Act, which authorized -- but did not require -- random drug testing as a condition of receiving welfare benefits. But a major problem for the proponents of such schemes is that the only state to try to actually implement a random drug testing program got slapped down by the federal courts.

Michigan passed a welfare drug testing law in 1999 that required all Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) applicants to provide urine samples to be considered eligible for assistance. But that program was shut down almost immediately by a restraining order. Three and a half years later, the US 6th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an earlier district court ruling that the blanket, suspicionless testing of recipients violated the Fourth Amendment's proscription of unreasonable searches and seizures and was thus unconstitutional.

"This ruling should send a message to the rest of the nation that drug testing programs like these are neither an appropriate or effective use of a state's limited resources," said the ACLU Drug Policy Litigation Project head Graham Boyd at the time.

According to the ACLU's now-renamed Drug Law Reform Project, which had intervened in the Michigan case, the other 49 states had rejected drug testing for various reasons. At least 21 states concluded that the program "may be unlawful," 17 states cited cost concerns, 11 gave a variety of practical or operational reasons, and 11 said they had not seriously considered drug testing at all (some states cited more than one reason).

Random drug testing of welfare recipients has also been rejected by a broad cross-section of organizations concerned with public health, welfare rights, and drug reform, including the American Public Health Association, National Association of Social Workers, Inc., National Association of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Association of Maternal and Child Health Programs, National Health Law Project, National Association on Alcohol, Drugs and Disability, Inc., National Advocates for Pregnant Women, National Black Women's Health Project, Legal Action Center, National Welfare Rights Union, Youth Law Center, Juvenile Law Center, and National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.

But that hasn't stopped politicians eager to take a stand on the backs of society's most vulnerable. Using remarkably similar rhetoric, legislators across the land are demanding that those seeking benefits be tested.

In West Virginia, Rep. Craig Blair (R-Berkeley County) has created a web site, Not With My Tax Dollars, to publicize his bill, which would apply to anyone seeking welfare, food stamps, or unemployment insurance. "I think it's time that we get serious about the problem of illegal drug users abusing our public assistance system in West Virginia," he wrote on the site. "We should require random drug testing for every individual receiving welfare, food assistance or unemployment benefits. After all, more and more employers are requiring drug testing. Why not make sure that people who are supposed to be looking for work are already prequalified by being drug free?"

 
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