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Why The Ridiculous, Mandatory Drug Test Laws Flooding The Country Are Struggling To Pass

The bills are finally being recognized as targeting the most downtrodden and disadvantaged -- the poor, the sick, the jobless -- in the guise of helping them.

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While it appears that most public benefits drug testing bills being considered would be at best a wash when it comes to spending or saving taxpayer dollars, one unemployment drug testing bill,  Senate Bill 1495 in Arizona, is likely to be doomed because it will trigger the withholding of federal tax benefits for business, costing Arizona businesses millions of dollars. That Republican-sponsored bill is now stalled in the House, and some normally staunch allies of the GOP are in the opposition camp.

"Arizona is moving forward with this bill that the Department of Labor says violates federal law," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the  Drug Policy Alliance. "The trade-off for this testing is a pretty steep tax hike on local businesses, and the Chamber of Commerce is opposing it because they care about taxes. We're hoping that the Chamber in other states will look at that as well."

A third stumbling block for public benefits drug testing bills is not legal or economic, but based on notions of justice and fairness. While Republican legislators talk about ensuring that taxpayer dollars aren't wasted on drug users, they seem decidedly disinterested in imposing drug testing burdens on recipients of taxpayer largesse who are not poor. They are not calling for the drug testing of beneficiaries of corporate tax breaks, for instance, and for the most part they are demonstrably uninterested in subjecting themselves to similar testing, although Democrats opponents of the bills have had fun and scored political points sponsoring amendments or bills to do just that in some states.

In Colorado,  Democratic foes of a welfare drug testing bill submitted an amendment to drug test legislators and state officials complete with personalized urine specimen cups for House committee members.That amendment actually passed the committee, but was largely symbolic because even if the bill passed in the House, it was doomed in the Democratically-controlled state Senate.

Instead of the powerful, the bills target the most downtrodden and disadvantaged -- the poor, the sick, the jobless -- in the guise of helping them. They are part of a broader attack on the poor, some advocates said.

"Whether you're talking about attacks on welfare, abortion, or contraception, it's all connected," said Lynn Paltrow, executive director of  National Advocates for Pregnant Women. "Depriving low-income people, predominantly women, of basic financial support is part of creating a second class status for all women. Women can't make healthy decisions about their reproductive lives if they don't have enough food to eat for themselves and their children," she argued.

For Paltrow, the push for drug testing the poor "has been part of a concerted effort to undermine the notion of the social contract" that is ideologically-driven and mean-spirited. "Whether it's poverty or pregnancy, you make every problem one having to do with individual responsibility, and then you create a justification for taking away money from people who need it."

It's part of a larger move to privatize what should be public welfare and services, Paltrow argued. "You're transferring money from poor people to companies that do drug testing," she said. "That's an important part of trickling up all our money to the fewer than 1%."

While Paltrow saw malign forces at work, Piper could identify no grand conspiracy.

"We couldn't find any think tanks currently pushing this or any other common denominator in all the states other than that this gets media attention," he said. "Some dumb legislator reads something in the newspaper and decides to do it in his state. We don't see any indication the drug testing industry is pushing this. If there's a conspiracy, it's a conspiracy of stupidity, that's all."

There is another fairness issue in play as well. The rhetoric surrounding the politics of drug testing the poor suggests that it is aimed at mothers strung out on heroin or meth-ravaged fathers, but the most common drug cited in the failed Florida drug tests was marijuana. That gets the goat of the MPP's Fox.

"Considering that occasionally using marijuana is not going to affect your ability to be a productive member of society and that it has a low addiction potential, marijuana consumers are being kind of discriminated against," he said. "People who, for ideological reasons, would rather drug test everyone than pay for the welfare of a few people, especially when it's marijuana, why, that's just patently ridiculous."

Republican legislators may have thought they had a no-brainer of an issue with mandating drug tests for public benefits recipients, but for the reasons mentioned above, the going has been tougher than they expected. That doesn't mean no more such bills are going to make it through the legislative process -- one is very close in Tennessee -- but it doesn't suggest that pandering to stereotypes and prejudice isn't as easy a sell as they thought.

Legislators in some states have also responded by more narrowly crafting drug testing bills in hopes of passing constitutional muster. A Utah bill now signed into law requires drug tests for welfare recipients upon suspicion, and more such bills are in the pipeline, although they face the same ticking clocks as the more broadly drawn drug testing bills.

While the Republican offensive has been blunted, the battle is not over.

"I remain concerned that more states will pass stupid drug testing legislation, but still optimistic the courts will strike them down. They're trying to make them suspicion-based and less random, but even that may or may not pass court scrutiny," said Piper.

"This recession can't end quickly enough," he sighed. "When the economy is bad, they need to find scapegoats. Still, this isn't passing in most states, and to get bills passed, it may be that they have to water them down to the point where they're just not that effective."