G.O.P. Goes Gaga for Drug Testing

By Dirk Hanson 05/17/11

Almost 30 states now intend to test welfare recipients for drug use.

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Next please.
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One of the most ancient weapons of welfare folklore made a reappearance in the U.S. Congress last week: the belief that people on welfare are a bunch of junkies. Representative Charles Boustany (R-Louisiana) introduced a bill in the House calling for mandatory drug testing of anyone receiving funds from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. (TANF, as it’s called, replaced welfare as we knew it in 1996, when President Bill Clinton and Congress reworked the program.) George Zornick, writing in The Nation, says that the new bill “would create yet another obstacle for poverty-stricken families in need of help.” A similar bill proposed last year by Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) went over like a lead balloon; a fate Boustany’s offering may suffer as well. Let’s face it, this is largely a symbolic move. As it turns out, testing welfare recipients for drugs is not cost-effective, and is probably unconstitutional.

But these pesky technicalities have not deterred dozens of states from reviving the notion. Bills in New Mexico, Illinois, Kentucky, New York, and other states have sprung to life recently. State attorneys general must have remarkably short memories, since it has been less than a decade since the Sixth Circuit court found Michigan’s welfare drug testing law to be in violation of Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure. The court’s view: “Upholding a suspicionless drug testing would set a dangerous precedent…” Not to mention doing dangerous damage to the dictates of logic: Studies show clearly that any effort to keep tax dollars from being spent on drugs by welfare recipients runs up against the unavoidable fact that “drug testing is vastly more expensive than the savings it would reap in reduced benefits for addicts.” The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah said that states were playing with fire, since “they must also consider the cost of defending a certain lawsuit, which could be more than $1 million,” as Zornick writes.

The truth is pretty straightforward on this one. Those who receive government benefits are no more likely to be “on drugs” than anyone else. And if the concern is tax dollars, than why single out TANF recipients? What about people receiving unemployment benefits? Shouldn’t those rat bastards be tested, too?

 The most recent successes appear to be Florida--where a drug testing bill awaits Republican Governor Rick Scott’s signature--and Missouri--where lawmakers approved a welfare drug testing program last week. Florida and New Mexico, just to twist the knife in a little deeper, also require welfare recipients to pay for the drug tests themselves, according to an AP report. A Fox News story out of Kansas City quoted Susie Roling of Operation Breakthrough: “The response we got from a lot of legislators was if you’re abusing substances then you’re not worthy of state funding.”

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Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]