Children, Budgets Suffer from Drug Testing the Poor


Legislation is pending in California, New York, Illinois, New Mexico and at least ten other state legislatures and the United States Congress that would deny help with food and housing or unemployment to any recipients who fail a drug test.


Proponents argue that denying basic needs to families with children is okay since the drug test will encourage those who fail to seek drug treatment. But nothing could be further from the truth. An individual who is facing homelessness and hunger will not be in a better place to address drug dependence. Furthermore, none of these legislative proposals increase drug treatment capacity. Rather, they serve as a golden opportunity to drop vulnerable families from public assistance and scapegoat people who are no more likely to use illicit drugs than the general population.


Proponents have presented this as a way to reduce budget deficits. Yet, drug testing equipment is notoriously inaccurate and expensive, and drug tests do nothing to evaluate or address behavioral or familial problems. Drug testing is so inaccurate that many legislative proposals take this into account by calling for a second test to confirm the accuracy of the first. Even if the second test turns up positive, the government will often have to cover the cost of managing any appeals that arise from people who want to challenge the accuracy of the test. In addition to covering these administrative costs, the state must also pay out up to $42 per test. A study commissioned by Idaho legislators recently concluded the cost of drug testing welfare recipients exceeded any savings from dropping people from the list.


Furthermore, the only thing a drug test does is indicate that a person has used an illicit drug. Tests do not indicate if a person is impaired, how much a person has used, or whether they are using less than they have in the past. Marijuana can show up in a drug test days or weeks after the person used the drug. An individual could have decided a week prior to quit using marijuana, or used marijuana for the first time in their life, and still be denied help. Drug tests easily identify marijuana use but often miss cocaine, methamphetamine, and opiate-based drugs that ordinarily clear out of the body within a few days.  Moreover, alcohol typically doesn’t show up at all.


A congressional committee once estimated that the cost of each positive drug test of government employees to be in the neighborhood of $77,000 because the positive test rate among all government employees is only about half of one percent. In 2002, a federal court struck down as unconstitutional a Michigan law on the basis that it violated the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches. Earlier this year, South Dakota legislators reasoned that it isn’t fair to make welfare recipients get drug tested when everyone else who benefits from tax cuts isn’t required to get the same test.


Drug testing advocates are willing to go to any extreme to push their product at any cost. Under their care, it is okay if families are evicted on to the street, and children go hungry. Just as crusading policymakers and police reserve the bloodiest battles in their war on drugs for inner-city neighborhoods but usually favor friendlier measures in affluent cul-de-sacs, the poor are penalized for moral shortfalls by lawmakers who often fail to live up to their own standards. Children are the biggest losers of these proposals.  We cannot allow personal views of morality to stand in the way of the neediest among us from getting the same help that many Americans seek at some point in their lives.

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