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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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 With states facing severe budget pressures, bills to require drug testing to apply for or receive public benefits -- welfare, unemployment benefits, even Medicaid -- have been all the rage at Republican-dominated state houses this year. Fail the drug test and lose your benefits. The bills carry a powerful appeal that plays well even beyond typically Republican constituencies, combining class, gender and racial stereotypes with a distaste for wasteful government spending. But they have also faced surprisingly tough opposition.

"If you have enough money to be able to buy drugs, then you don't need the public assistance," Colorado Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg told the  Associated Press in March after sponsoring a welfare drug testing bill. "I don't want tax dollars spent on drugs."

"The message of this bill is simple: Oklahomans should not have their taxes used to fund illegal drug activity,” said state Rep. Guy Liebmann (R-Oklahoma City) in a statement on the passage of his welfare drug testing bill in the state House. "Benefit payments that have been wasted on drug abusers will be available for the truly needy as a result of this bill, and addicts will be incentivized to get treatment." 

Liebmann also struck another frequently-hit note -- a moral claim that such bills were necessary even if they didn't save taxpayer dollars. "Even if it didn't save a dime, this legislation would be worth enacting based on principle," he said. "Law-abiding citizens should not have their tax payments used to fund illegal activity that puts us all in danger."

Such rhetoric has sounded in statehouses across the land, with bills for mandatory, suspicionless drug testing of people seeking public benefits introduced in almost half the states, even passing a couple -- Florida last year led the way (and this year passed a law mandating  drug tests for state employees), and now  Georgia this month has followed suit. West Virginia's governor has also instituted drug testing for enrollees in the state's  job training program. But the most interesting trend emerging is how difficult it is to actually get them passed.

While Georgia legislators managed to get a bill through, bills have already been defeated in nine states so far this year -- Alabama Hawaii, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, South Dakota, West Virginia, Virginia, and Wyoming -- and a number of others are either dead in the water or running out of time as legislative session clocks tick down.

The states where welfare drug test bills have not yet died include Colorado ( House Bill 2012-1046) , Illinois ( House Bill 5364), Indiana ( House Bill 1007), Kansas ( House Bill 2686), Oklahoma (House Bill 2388), Ohio ( Senate Bill 69) South Carolina ( House Bill 4358), and Tennessee ( House Bill 2725), while a "reasonable suspicion" bill is still alive in Minnesota ( Senate File 1535). Bills targeting unemployment benefits are still alive in Arizona ( Senate Bill 1495) and Michigan ( House Bill 5412), while one aimed at Medicaid recipients is still alive in South Carolina ( House Bill 4458).

The stumbling blocks for passage are threefold: First, there are serious reservations about the constitutionality of such bills. While the Supreme Court has not ruled directly on the subject of requiring drug tests of public benefits recipients, it has held that forcing someone to submit to a drug test is a search under the meaning of the Fourth Amendment and thus requires either a search warrant or probable cause. The high court has carved out only limited exceptions to this general rule, including people in public safety-sensitive positions (airline pilots, truck drivers), members of law enforcement engaged in drug-related work, and some high school students (those involved in athletics or extracurricular activities).

The only federal appeals court ruling on drug testing welfare recipients came out of Michigan a decade ago, and in that case, a divided panel found such testing unconstitutional. That case was not appealed by the state. In Florida, the welfare drug testing law passed by the Republican legislature and signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott (R), has been stopped in its tracks at least temporarily by a federal district judge who has hinted broadly she will ultimately find it unconstitutional. Civil libertarians in Georgia have vowed to challenge its law as soon as it goes into effect.

Democratic legislators across the country have used the fear of unconstitutionality as a potent argument against the drug testing bills. They have also raised the specter of legal fees reaching into the hundreds of thousands of dollars to try to defend such bills in the courts, and that leads to the second objection to public benefits drug testing bills: they will not save taxpayer dollars, but will instead waste them.

"It's absolutely ridiculous to cut people off from potential benefits, especially when we've found that people on welfare aren't using their money to feed addictions," said Morgan Fox, communications manager for the  Marijuana Policy Project. "In Florida, when they enacted their program, very few people tested positive. It ends up costing the state money to drug test."

Fox was referring to  findings reported last week that in the four months last year that Florida's welfare drug testing law was in effect, only 2.6% of applicants failed the drug test and fewer than 1% canceled the test. With the state reimbursing those who took and passed a drug test, the program was a net loser for the state, costing it an estimated $45,000 during that four-month period.

The Florida findings are similar to the findings of an earlier Florida pilot program for welfare drug testing and the short-lived Michigan program, both of which reported very low rates of positive drug tests among their subject populations.