The Upside Down World of Welfare Drug Testing

By Meg Williams 02/17/14
Sweeping aside liberal objections about the rich punishing the poor, conservatives believe that welfare drug tests help employers and save the state money. But what does zero tolerance really produce?
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Since 2011, nine states have passed legislation mandating drug testing for welfare applicants. In 2013 alone, the issue was debated in 29 state legislatures. To conservatives it seems like common sense; drugs could stand in the way of a person’s ability to gain employment. Mandatory drug testing for welfare applicants could also save the state money, help people get off welfare, and prevent the state from subsidizing a person’s drug use. Some supporters point to potential savings that climb toward half a million a year.

The Deseret News, a Utah news outlet, published an astonishing claim—even though only 12 people tested positive in 2012-2013, mandatory drug testing for welfare applicants had saved the state $350,000. It’s a great headline. But the real reason the state saved so much is because 250 failed to “meet drug testing requirements” and were barred from receiving benefits for three months. In other words, these welfare applicants refused an invasive policy that some courts have ruled unconstitutional. Their civil disobedience saved money for the state—not the policy itself or any drug use it prevented.

When the cost of the drug testing procedures, the manpower it would take to implement such testing, and possible updates to computer systems and facilities are factored in, actual savings dwindle down to nothing. Take Florida for instance. Only 2.6% of the welfare applicants failed a drug test, and state records show that the procedure cost more than it saved.

So, is drug testing effective as a means of getting people off welfare?

For one, drug testing does nothing to address issue of alcohol dependence in the population of welfare applicants. Some drug tests cannot detect alcohol unless it is administered within hours of ingestion. The majority can’t detect it at all. Alcohol dependence and “risky use” are associated with around 25,000 deaths per year and a tremendous yearly cost to the states and federal government—around $2.9 million in 2006 according to the Center for Disease Control. Why is it that alcohol isn’t given the same attention? Is it logistics? Or willful ignorance about the actual effect of alcohol on society?

Even putting the alcohol question aside, the fact remains that drug testing alone cannot differentiate between drug use and drug dependence—that is, whether a person is addicted to a drug or merely uses it. Further clinical interviews and diagnoses are necessary to make such a distinction.

For the sake of argument, let’s suppose that a welfare applicant tests positive for marijuana but is only a casual user. Many programs would mandate this person to a substance use disorder treatment facility even though it has not been determined that she actually needs drug treatment.

“Hard” drugs such as opiates, cocaine, benzodiazepines, and amphetamines clear the system within days of use while marijuana takes up to three weeks to clear. According to a survey administered by Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Canada in connection with mandatory drug testing, the most commonly used illicit substance was marijuana.

Not only would mandating casual marijuana users divert funds and resources away from people in need of substance use disorder treatment, it would lessen the effectiveness of group therapies which rely on a community of people who are ready and willing to become abstinent from all drugs and alcohol.

A 2009 study conducted by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University concerning drug users claiming welfare benefits suggested that substance use severity did not have a significant effect on attaining full time employment. This study pointed instead to factors such as work experience, labor capital, motivation to work, and situational barriers such as lack of transportation and childcare.

Intensive case management carried out by workers with substance use disorder training, fewer cases, and the ability to perform more visits with clients also increased the likelihood that a person, even if substance dependent, would gain employment. This study also suggested that vocational rehabilitation including job skills evaluations and temporary work placement yielded better results than drug treatment alone for keeping a person abstinent over a two year period.

These findings fly in the face of conservative “common sense.” But when one starts with an erroneous assumption as the basis of an argument, the rest of the argument tends to be flawed. The erroneous assumption underlying the conservative tact is this: at least some proportion of people are on welfare simply because they are on drugs and as a result cannot attain gainful employment.

The fact of the matter is that the population on welfare has drug use rates similar to the general population. The social underpinnings of the conservative argument stem from the idea that the results of poverty, racism, sexism, disability, and unequal opportunities are no longer institutionalized but must be the result of the failures of the individual. If inequality still exists, there must be something the individual is doing to perpetuate it.

If we look at the people on welfare, we can see how many prejudices overlap: most are minorities, a large number have physical disabilities or mental health issues, and there is a preponderance of single parents, particularly mothers.  

Justifying his signature legislation, Governor Rick Scott of Florida said in a statement, “We should have a zero-tolerance policy for illegal drug use in families—especially those families who struggle to make ends meet and need welfare assistance to provide for their children.”

This “zero tolerance” policy not only turns a blind eye to similar if not more severe problems stemming from alcohol use and dependence but also mimics the highly ineffective rhetoric of the War Against Drugs—a block of outdated legislation that has been dubious at best and discriminatory at worst.

Florida did get something right. Mandatory drug testing as a condition for receiving welfare benefits is not only ineffective, it is not only discriminatory, it is not only costly - it’s unconstitutional. At the end of December 2013, Judge Mary S. Scriven of the United State District Court in Orland struck down 2011 legislation passed by conservatives that required drug testing for people receiving welfare.

Judge Scriven held that mandatory testing violated the recipients’ constitutional right that protects them against unreasonable search and seizure. This followed in the footsteps of another ruling in Michigan in 2003 which cited the same protection.

Other states such as Georgia have followed this court battle, deciding whether to implement mandatory drug testing themselves. States such as Pennsylvania and North Carolina have seen gubernatorial vetoes followed by veto overrides in the state legislatures.

In the face of these rulings, many conservatives have changed their goals and are now advocating mandatory drug tests for the welfare recipients “believed to be on drugs.” This measure lends itself to prejudice against minorities and the disabled. Who gets to decide who “is on drugs?” What oversight will be given?  

It seems strange that the same party that advocates a non-intrusive government would advocate widespread invasive testing by that same state. Instead of investing our money in unconstitutional drug testing that might not even be effective, our politicians should invest in programs to better welfare case management, increase substance use disorder training for its employees, and do further research into evidence-based treatment methods.

But then again, if it made sense, we wouldn’t call it the Republican Party.

Meg Williams is a regular contributor to The Fix. She last wrote about dabbing and Jessica Lamb Shapiro.

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