Welfare Drug Testing Under Attack

By Will Godfrey 08/23/11

A Florida law that mandates drug testing of welfare applicants faces a flurry of legal challenges.

A way to shorten the line? Photo via

A welfare drug testing law that came into force in Florida on July 1—meaning people applying for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families welfare benefits must submit urine, blood or hair samples for analysis—has spawned many would-be imitators. With Missouri set to follow in Florida's footsteps, Alabama Senator Scott Beason recently attempted to pass a similar bill in his state, one of a reported 27—including North Carolina, Arizona and Massachusetts—to have seen mainly unsuccessful efforts of this kind in the latest legislative session. Signing the Florida bill into law in May, Governor Rick Scott declared his goal was “to make sure we don’t waste taxpayers’ money. And hopefully more people will focus on not using illegal drugs.” Yet strangely enough, Scott didn't extend the policy to others who profit from the public purse, such as holders of Florida's Bright Futures scholarships, or employees of corporations receiving economic incentives. Could it be that targeting welfare recipients—and Scott's claim that they use illegal drugs more than other Americans is a contentious one—panders to taxpayers' prejudices, with little electoral risk at a time when poor voters are being eased away from the ballot box by new photo ID requirements?

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) claimed yesterday that six weeks after the law's introduction, evidence shows it is wasting taxpayer dollars rather than saving them. No matter, say supporters of testing—this is about principles as well as cash: "We wanted to ensure that the individuals who are eligible for this benefit are using them for the true, intended purpose of this benefit [i.e. not getting loaded]," explained Department of Central Florida spokeswoman Carrie Hoeppner when confronted by the numbers. Well, legally enshrined principle may yet be the downfall of welfare drug testing. The Fourth Amendment protects "The right of the people to be secure in their persons... against unreasonable searches and seizures... and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause..." The ACLU has already filed a suit against Florida's law. "Mandatory drug testing presumes that all program participants are guilty until proven innocent," agreed Jim Carnes, Communications Director of the Arise Citizens’ Policy Project. A similar law in Michigan was struck down by judges in 2003 for failing to meet ''the closely guarded category of constitutionally permissible suspicionless testing.''

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Will Godfrey is the former editor-in-chief of TheFix. He was also the founding editor-in-chief of Substance.com, and previously co-founded a magazine for prisoners in London. His work has appeared in Salon, Pacific Standard, AlterNet and The Nation among others. He is currently the Executive Director at FILTER. You can find Will on Linkedin and Twitter.