During his election campaign last year, Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) campaigned on, among other things, cutting government spending by reducing the welfare rolls through drug testing. Welfare recipients were more likely than average citizens to be drug users, he claimed.
According to the Tampa Tribune, the state Department of Children and Families is reporting some preliminary numbers. So far, at least 1,000 applicants have undergone drug testing, and only 2% have failed their drug tests. Another 2% have, for reasons unknown, failed to complete the application process.
These numbers suggest that not only are Florida welfare recipients not a bunch of lazy junkies getting high on the backs of taxpayers, but that they actually use drugs at a significantly lower rate than the population as a whole. [Ed: Drug testing proponents might argue that the program is causing applicants to stop using drugs in order to quality for benefits. But that ideas squares neither with the "addict" characterization commonly made about welfare recipients nor the weeks that marijuana remains detectable in the bloodstream after its last use.]
According to the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 8.7% of the population nationally over age 12 used an illicit drug in the previous month. The rate was 6.3% for those ages 26 and up. The 2006 national survey disaggregated usage rates by state and found a figure of 7.69% of people 12 and over using within the past month in Florida.
The ACLU of Florida, which is studying a lawsuit to challenge the constitutionality of the warrantless, suspicionless mandatory drug tests, told the Tampa Tribune the Florida law is based on stereotypes of poor people.
"This is just punishing people for being poor, which is one of our main points," said ACLU of Florida spokesman Dan Newton. "We're not testing the population at-large that receives government money; we're not testing people on scholarships, or state contractors. So why these people? It's obvious -- because they're poor."
These initial numbers also suggest that the welfare drug testing program will not be a big money saver for the state. Under the law, while welfare applicants and recipients must pay for the drug tests out of their own pockets, the state must reimburse those who test negative. At an estimated $30 a pop for the drug tests, that creates significant expenditures for the state.
Those expenditures are canceled out by the savings the state makes by not making welfare payments to those who test positive. If the current 2% positive test result rate holds true, the Tampa Tribune calculates, the state could save somewhere between $40,000 and $60,000 a year.
But that's a drop in the bucket in a program that is predicted to cost $178 million this year, and it doesn't include staff costs and other resources the state has expended to implement the program -- nor the cost if even one person testing positive ends up in an emergency room or courtroom as a result. And even the small savings projected by the Tribune could be wiped out by the cost of defending what is likely to be found an unconstitutional infringement on the rights of Florida welfare applicants and recipients to be free of unwarranted searches.