A perennial favorite of drug warriors, bills that would require people receiving public benefits to submit to mandatory drug tests are being introduced in statehouses around the country again this year. In South Carolina, the focus is on people receiving unemployment benefits; in Kentucky, the focus is on people receiving any public assistance, including food stamps and state medical care. Meanwhile, in West Virginia, the author of last year's failed mandatory drug test bill for welfare recipients is back with a new, improved version. And in Florida, a similar drug testing bill is in the works.
Drug testing recipients of public assistance has a certain superficial appeal, especially to politicians willing to pander to culturally and fiscally conservative constituencies. But that appeal is usually found wanting in the face of questions about cost, practicality, and, most crucially, legality. Michigan is the only state to actually pass a law requiring mandatory drug testing to receive benefits, but that law was declared unconstitutional by a federal appeals court that held it violated the Fourth Amendment's protections against unreasonable searches.
That did not stop legislators in at least six states from introducing bills last year, and at least four states have seen bills filed or pre-filed so far this year.
In South Carolina, Sen. David Thomas (R-Greenville) has introduced S 920, which could cut off unemployment benefits for people who test positive for illegal drugs. Under the bill, anyone currently receiving benefits must submit to a drug test. If the test is positive, the benefits are cut off until the applicant completes drug treatment. The applicant must agree to random drug testing, and if he fails a random drug test, he must undergo a second round of treatment. He also loses benefits for a year.
"My concern is as much for those who are addicted or misusing drugs as for the folks that are paying the bills," Thomas told the Associated Press. "Ultimately, I think the question needs to be asked, 'Should unemployment be provided for people with ongoing drug problems, because they're using that unemployment money to feed the habit?'"
About 150,000 South Carolinians are currently receiving unemployment benefits. Testing each of them could run into the millions of dollars, and providing treatment for some percentage of them could prove costly as well.
Thomas' bill has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee. No hearings have been scheduled.
In Kentucky, the bill introduced by Rep. Lonnie Napier (R-Lancaster), HB 120, is even more ambitious that the South Carolina bill. It would require anyone seeking public assistance via cash, food stamps or the state medical assistance program to be drug tested. Nearly 740,000 Kentuckians receive food stamps and 748,000 receive medical assistance.
Under Napier's bill, all recipients would face an initial drug test and a random drug test at some point over the next year and every year they are receiving assistance. Those who test positive for a Schedule I controlled substance or a prescription drug not prescribed to them would be ineligible for benefits. The bill contains no provision for drug treatment, nor any provisions financing a million or more drug tests.
In West Virginia, Delegate Craig Blair (R-Berkeley), whose controversial bill to drug test welfare recipients was killed last year, is touting a new version of the bill, and this time, he has the backing of the House Republican caucus, which made the bill part of its 15-point legislative agenda this week. The new bill has some new twists: it calls for random drug testing of West Virginia elected officials, it would make drug testing of welfare recipients random instead of mandatory, and it would only apply to new welfare applicants. Under the new bill, randomly selected applicants who test positive could receive welfare benefits for two months, but after that, they would have to test clean or be in a drug treatment program or risk losing their benefits.
We will be watching these and any similar bills filed at statehouses around the country. Stay tuned!