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Georgia Welfare Drug Testing Bill Signed Into Law

A Georgia bill, House Bill 861, requiring applicants for welfare to first pass a drug test is now law after Gov. Nathan Deal (R) signed it Monday. It will go into effect July 1, but faces a legal challenge as soon as it does.

Georgia follows Florida in passing legislation requiring mandatory, suspicionless drug testing of welfare applicants. The Florida law is on hold after a federal district judge questioned its constitutionality and issued a temporary restraining order while she ponders whether to make it permanent.

Backers of the Georgia law said it would be found constitutional, but it is essentially identical to the Florida law. Attorney Gerry Weber with the Southern Center for Human Rights told Georgia Public Broadcasting the federal courts have been clear on the issue of suspicionless drug tests.

"The Supreme Court said that there has to be a special need such as safety," he said. "Bus drivers, for example, can be subject to suspicionless drug testing because of the safety needs of children. But just because you think a particular category of people is using drugs more than others isn't a special need under the Constitution."

Weber also noted that the court in Florida found no evidence that welfare recipients used drugs at a higher rate than the population as a whole, but bill backers said that wasn't the point.

"It's not a case of whether we think someone on welfare would want to do drugs more than anyone else," said Senator John Albers (R-Roswell). "The whole point of the legislation is saying that if you're going to get a free entitlement or benefit from the government, you're going to have to play by the same rules as everyone else."

Weber and the Southern Human Rights Center are going to challenge the law. He said he would file suit once the state starts demanding the tests.

Georgia welfare officials estimate that some 19,000 applicants will be affected by the law in its first year of operation.

Atlanta, GA
United States

Protestors Challenge NYC Mayor on Mass Marijuana Arrests [FEATURE]

New York City has the dubious -- and well-earned -- reputation as the world's marijuana arrest capital, with more than 50,000 people being arrested for pot possession there last year alone at an estimated cost of $75 million. It also has a mayor, Michael Bloomberg, who has famously said he smoked marijuana and enjoyed it, yet who presides over a police force that has run roughshod over the state's marijuana decriminalization law in order to make those arrests, almost all of which are of members of the city's black and brown minority communities.

Protestors call on Mayor Bloomberg (DPA)
Last Thursday, activists and concerned citizens organized as the New Yorkers for Health & Safety campaign marched to the mayor's home, an apartment building in Manhattan's Upper East Side, to call him on his hypocrisy, chastise the NYPD for its racially-skewed stop-and-frisk policing, and demand that the city quit wasting tens of millions a dollar a year on low-level marijuana arrests even as it proposes cuts to other vital New York City services.

The campaign, consisting of members of the Drug Policy Alliance, VOCAL-NY, the Institute for Juvenile Justice Reform and Alternatives, the Marijuana Arrest Research Project, and Women on the Rise Telling Her Story (WORTH), among others, brought out dozens of people for a march to the mayor's residence, followed by a brief rally. Protestors, some wearing Mayor Bloomberg masks, held signs and chanted as they rallied across the street from the apartment building.

"Bloomberg is doing more than wasting $75 million a year on marijuana arrests, he is wasting the future our youth," said Chino Hardin, lead know-your-rights trainer for the Institute for Juvenile Justice Reform and Alternatives. "We don't want kids using drugs, so why not put money into real programs that will help them make better choices, not give forever lasting criminal records."

On the march to the mayor's place, with Bloomberg masks (DPA)
Under New York state law, the possession of small amounts of marijuana is decriminalized, punishable by a ticket and fine. But NYPD practice, designed to get around that law and generate arrests, is to stop and frisk citizens going about their business, almost always young people of color, order them to empty their pockets (which they are not required by law to do), then arrest them for possession of marijuana in public when a baggie containing weed emerges. That is not an infraction, but a misdemeanor, and the victims are then arrested and jailed, typically for 24 hours or more, before being arraigned and released.

Last year, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly ordered an end to that practice, but that has yet to be reflected in declining marijuana possession arrest numbers. And those numbers are huge: In addition to the more than 50,000 arrested last year, another 350,000 have been arrested since Bloomberg took office in 2002, at an estimated cost to the city of $600 million.

Even though whites use marijuana at higher rates than any other ethnic or racial group, nearly 85% of those arrested for pot possession are black and Latino, and most are under 30. Being arrested for pot means more than a day or so in jail; it also creates a permanent criminal record that can easily be accessed by employers, landlords, schools, credit agencies, licensing boards and banks, damaging the life prospects of those saddled with a rap sheet.

"For a mayor who celebrates diversity as a key staple of the city, he sure has a horrible way of demonstrating his appreciation for certain communities in our City," said Kassandra Frederique, policy coordinator at the Drug Policy Alliance. "Black and Latino New Yorkers cannot walk down the street without fear of being stopped, frisked, illegally searched, and then falsely charged and arrested for something that was decriminalized over 30 years ago. This is costing us millions of dollars as taxpayers. It's an insult, and must end now."

Academic marijuana arrest researcher Harry Levine has a few words for the mayor (DPA)
Mayor Bloomberg last year launched a new $130 million Young Men's Initiative, "the nation's boldest and most comprehensive effort to tackle the broad disparities slowing the advancement of black and Latino young men," but continues to preside over a marijuana arrest policy seemingly designed to increase those disparities. That makes the mayor a hypocrite, the protestors charged.

"Mayor Bloomberg is talking out of both sides of his mouth when it comes to helping young Black and Latino men like me," said Alfredo Carrasquillo, a community organizer for VOCAL-NY who has been targeted under stop-and-frisk practices, illegally searched and falsely arrested for marijuana possession. "The money for his Young Men's Initiative goes to waste along with the taxpayer dollars he's wasting on pursuing his marijuana arrests crusade in my community."

"New York City is spending $75 million dollars a year to arrest and prosecutor mostly young people of color simply for possessing marijuana -- which is not a crime in New York State." said Harry Levine, Queens College Professor and founder of the Marijuana Arrest Research Project. "It is long past time for this outrage to stop."

The sign says it all (DPA)
It isn't just activists who have taken notice. Lawmakers in Albany have crafted bipartisan legislation, Assembly Bill 7620, introduced by Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries (D, WFP-Brooklyn), and companion measure Senate Bill 5187, introduced by Sen. Mark Grisanti (R-Buffalo), that would standardize marijuana possession penalties statewide, enforcing the original legislative intent of the 1977 decriminalization law. Dozens of New York City council members have signed onto a resolution supporting those bills and calling to end to the mass marijuana arrests.

"The explosion of low level marijuana arrests in New York City is a tremendous waste of precious law enforcement resources and needlessly scars thousands of young lives," said Jeffries. "Our legislation is an additional step toward a more equitable criminal justice system that treats everyone the same, regardless of race or socioeconomic status."

Activists in the city aren't waiting for Albany to ride to the rescue. They are planning more street actions, including one next month, said the Drug Policy Alliance's Frederique, and they're looking for some white guys.

"We will be having an action in April, but haven't yet decided on the date and location, or the exact nature of the action," she said. "We're trying to get white men under 30 to show up, since those are the people who actually smoke marijuana, but don't get arrested. And we are cordially inviting New York City's most famous pot smoker, Mayor Bloomberg, to attend."

An organizing meeting for the April action will take place next Wednesday, April 4, at 113 West 13th Street in Manhattan. Contact the organizations linked to above for more information.

Fight Is On to Make Drug Possession a Misdemeanor in California [FEATURE]

At the end of February, state Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) introduced a bill that would make drug possession for personal use a misdemeanor in California. If the bill passes, California would join 13 other states and the District of Columbia that have taken the cost-saving and rehabilitation-aiding step of not making felons out of mere drug users.

California needs to reduce prison and jail overcrowding (US Supreme Court)
The measure, Senate Bill 1506, would make the possession of any controlled substance -- except up to an ounce of marijuana, which is already decriminalized -- a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in county jail. Under current law, possession of controlled substances, such as heroin, cocaine, or methamphetamine, is a felony punishable by either up to 16 months in county jail or two to three years in state prison.

A felony conviction doesn't just mean jail or prison time. It becomes a permanent barrier to reentry into society, making access to education, employment, and housing more difficult, as well as barring people with such convictions from obtaining professional licenses and subjecting them to various other obstacles.

The bill is backed by an array of drug policy, civil liberties, and human rights groups, including early supporters the American Civil Liberties Union, the California State NAACP, the Drug Policy Alliance, and the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.

Budget-conscious California voters have shown an interest in drug sentencing reform in the past. In 2000, they passed Proposition 36 to divert drug offenders from prison to treatment by a margin of 61%. Since then, the state's economic situation has only gotten worse, and pressure to do something about its gargantuan $9.3 billion corrections budget is on the rise.

A Lake Research Partners poll released last April found that 72% of respondents favored changing drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor, with 40% saying small-time drug possession for person use should be considered an infraction, with no jail time. Strong support for such a reform cuts across party lines, with support among Democrats at 79%, among independents at 72%, and among Republicans at 66%.

"Over the years we have learned that long prison sentences do little to deter or limit personal drug use," said Sen. Leno. "In fact, time behind bars and felony records often have horrible consequences for people trying to overcome addiction because they are unlikely to receive drug treatment in prison and have few job prospects and educational opportunities when they leave. This legislation will help implement public safety realignment and protect our communities by reserving prison and jail space for more serious offenders," he said.

"This bill merely revises the charge from a felony to a misdemeanor," Leno told the Chronicle Tuesday. "It will save the counties about $160 million a year, according to the Legislative Analyst's Office, and the state another $65 million. Thirteen states have already done this, and they have higher rates of treatment and lower rates of drug use and property and violent crime."

"The war on drugs has been an abysmal failure we can no longer afford," said Allen Hopper, Criminal Justice and Drug Policy Director at the ACLU of California. "California voters agree the punishment should fit the crime, and a felony for simple possession is ridiculous. Those who are addicted to drugs need treatment, not a jail cell and a felony conviction with severe and life-long consequences, like reduced access to job opportunities, student loans, and small business loans."

Drug possession would be a misdemeanor in California rather than a felony if SB 1506 passes (wikimedia.org)
"The goal is to make the penalty closer to what people think it should be," said Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, senior policy analyst for criminal justice and drug policy at the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties. "People think a felony charge is too harsh, and there is pretty universal support for treating drug use more as a health issue and prioritizing law enforcement resources for people convicted of serious offenses," she told the Chronicle.

The push for the bill is picking up steam, Dooley-Sammuli said.

"We have quite a broad coalition, and the list of groups coming out in support is long and getting longer by the day," she said. "We have faith, treatment, and housing groups; we have job placement organizations; we have family members and other folks who realize the this penalty is just too harsh. We've just added two more: California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, a defense attorneys' group, and the William Velasquez Institute, a group that will bring Latino communities into the process of helping to shape policies that impact them."

While an impressive coalition is budding to support the bill, and while polls suggest strong public support for such a measure, not everybody is on board, particularly law enforcement. 

"We're opposed to this bill for a variety of reasons," said John Lovell, a Sacramento attorney who is a lobbyist for the California Police Chiefs Association. "We don't think it's appropriate to reduce these offenses to misdemeanors because of severe unintended consequences. No one in California is being incarcerated for a first or second drug possession offense; instead, they are sent to a Proposition 36 drug treatment program," Lovell told the Chronicle.

"We believe this will create a disincentive for people to participate in a Prop 36 treatment program, and that is not a good thing," the lobbyist continued. "To the extent we can have a successful treatment result, that is one less person in a cycle of drug addiction."

"Oh, please!" exclaimed Dooley-Sammuli. "Lovell said the same kinds of things when Prop 36 passed. They were saying the sky would fall, that nobody would be in treatment and there would be crime in the streets, but the crime rate continues to go down."

Given the current fiscal constraints on the state criminal justice system, the "real world" result of downgrading drug possession to a misdemeanor would be that drug offenders essentially walk free, Lovell said.

"Say a person is convicted of meth possession," he said. "He is told he has a choice of Prop 36 treatment or going to the county jail, but the jails are all filled to capacity, and nobody does any time for a misdemeanor offense. An attorney representing such as person is ethically bound to say 'If you refuse treatment, there is no real sanction at all,'" Lovell maintained. "These will be misdemeanants, not felons, not under supervision and not breaking the cycle of addiction, which means the crimes they commit to purchase their dope will continue," he said. "It's not like you get a scholarship to pay for the cost of your meth."

But the bill provides for up to three years probation -- five years in some cases -- and would allow judges to order drug treatment as a condition for probation.

Saying that the state will benefit from saving money on not prosecuting drug users as felons is "a hackneyed argument," Lovell said. "If you say it will save money because these people aren't being supervised, yes, it will save that money, but if they're not being supervised they're more likely to go out and commit the economic crimes addicts commit. It's not so much a savings as a cost shift," he argued.

"We do not see this bill as yielding any positive public policy results," Lovell summed up.

"None of California's existing programs to make treatment available will be affected by this," countered Dooley-Sammuli, "and counties will have the freedom to use these dollars more wisely to make treatment more available. Compared to five years ago, treatment dollars have absolutely been gutted, and we're really working to identify ways to preserve funding so we can protect treatment. It's really disingenuous for our opponents to talk about this getting in the way of access to treatment. If Jerry Lovell is worried about access to treatment, we call on him to support this bill."

Leno responded more tersely to Lovell's arguments. "He's a dogmatic extremist. If you think drug use is a bad thing, the states that have actually lowered drug use are not felony states," the San Francisco Democrat said. "By making these offenses misdemeanors, we can remove barriers to housing, education, and employment -- the very things a felony conviction makes it more difficult to obtain, those unintended consequences of a felony conviction."

Now, it's up to the measure's supporters to get it moving. The bill will be heard in the Senate Public Safety Committee next month. For it to pass this year, it has to get out of committee, win approval in the Senate, and then go through the same process in the Assembly. And it has to happen by August, when the session ends.

"It's a very tight time-frame," said Dooley-Sammuli. "We're still educating people about this bill, but this is a serious effort, and we believe we can get that support with the right coalition partners and more education. Sen. Leno doesn't introduce bills just to make a statement, but because he thinks they have a political chance."

"We're looking for support anywhere and everywhere," Leno said. "We are talking to law enforcement agencies to educate them that there is no data showing that felony convictions reduce drug use."

There's clearly some work to be done on that score. But more important is getting actual legislators to vote for the bill.

"I believe there will be significant, and hopefully sufficient, Democratic support for the bill," said Leno, "and I'm also hoping Republican colleagues will see we can't waste the money and must invest in evidence-based programming."

California has the chance to pass a smart, cost-effective, and humane drug sentencing reform bill, but the clock is ticking.

The other states that treat drug possession as a misdemeanor are Delaware, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming, as well as the District of Columbia.

Sacramento, CA
United States

Oklahoma House Passes Welfare Drug Test Bill, Includes Candidates

The Oklahoma House of Representatives Monday passed a bill requiring poor people seeking public assistance to be subjected to random, suspicionless drug testing. The bill sailed through the House on an 82-6 vote.

Before the final vote, but after being needled by Democrats, who chided their Republican colleagues for singling out the poor for drug testing, the House passed an amendment to the bill that also requires anyone seeking state or local office to certify they have passed a drug test within 15 days of filing papers. The amendment passed 68-12 on a bipartisan vote, despite the objections of bill sponsor Rep. Guy Liebman (R-Oklahoma City).

Under the measure, House Bill 2388, persons receiving benefits under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program would have to submit to a drug test at their own expense within three months. Failure to comply would result in disqualification from the program until that person submits to a drug test. A positive test result would mean that person would be ineligible for the program for one year, although he or she could reapply after six months if he or she has successful completed drug treatment.

"The message of this bill is simple," said Liebman. "Oklahomans should not have their taxes used to fund illegal drug activity. Benefit payments that have been wasted on drug abusers will be available for the truly needy as a result of this bill, and addicts will be incentivized to get treatment."

A legislative staff fiscal analysis of the bill found that it could save the state $582,000, more than half of which would come from not having to pay for drug treatment for people thrown off TANF. The remaining savings to the state would come from not having to pay benefits to the estimated 84 people who would be thrown off the rolls (out of more than 13,000 families).

The fiscal analysis also noted that the bill would cost TANF recipients more than $800,000 in drug testing fees, in effect saving the state money by placing a greater burden on its poorest members. The analysts also warned that "any legal expenses could offset the savings" to the state.

But Liebman didn't care about that. "Even if it didn't save a dime, this legislation would be worth enacting based on principle," he said. "Law-abiding citizens should not have their tax payments used to fund illegal activity that puts us all in danger."

Although Liebman was cavalier about it, the state runs the risk of running up a substantial legal bill defending the bill if it becomes law. The random, suspicionless testing of public benefits recipients was found unconstitutional by a divided federal appeals court panel in 2003 after Michigan passed a similar law in 1999. The panel held that it violated the Fourth Amendment's ban on unwarranted searches and seizures. The state of Michigan did not appeal that decision. The state of Florida passed a similar law this year; it has been blocked by a federal district judge's temporary injunction. That judge has hinted broadly that she will soon make that a permanent injunction.

As for requiring candidates for public office to submit to drug tests, the US Supreme Court ruled a similar Georgia law unconstitutional in 1997 in Chandler v. Miller.

The federal courts have consistently held that random, suspicionless drug testing violates the Fourth Amendment and have carved out only specific, limited exceptions, including people in safety-sensitive positions, such as truck drivers and airline pilots, among police engaged in drug law enforcement, and for high school students (but only those engaged in sports or extracurricular activities).

All of the federal precedents didn't seem to mean much to Republican bill supporters. "If the courts want to overturn it, have at it," said Rep. Doug Cox (R-Grove).

The bill now heads for the state Senate.

Oklahoma City, OK
United States

Welfare Drug Test Bills Fail in South Dakota, Virginia

The push to mandate drug testing for recipients of public benefits is sweeping statehouses across the country this year, but in two states, those efforts hit a roadblock last week. In South Dakota and Virginia, bills were either defeated or deferred.

In South Dakota, the House Health and Human Services Committee last Monday killed a pair of bills that would have required people receiving welfare or Medicaid benefits to undergo random, suspicionless drug testing. House Bill 1268, introduced by Rep. Mark Kirkeby, would have directed the state to create a drug testing pilot program for Medicaid recipients, while House Bill 1174, introduced by Rep. Mark Venner (R-Pierre), would have mandated drug testing for welfare recipients based on "reasonable cause." Both bills would have thrown people who tested positive off the programs.

But after Social Services Secretary Kil Malsam-Rysdon testified that federal law barred drug testing for people on Medicaid and that drug testing welfare recipients hadn't saved any money where it had been implemented, the two measures were voted down, or, in South Dakota's unique legislative language "deferred to the 41st legislative day." (The session only lasts 40 days.)

"If this passes, Medicaid in South Dakota would not exist," she said, referring to Kirkeby's bill. As for Venner's bill, if people suspect welfare recipients are using drugs, they should call the cops or children's services officials, Malsam-Rysdon said. "There are other systems to deal with illegal drug use," she added.

That same day, a Virginia House Appropriations Committee subcommittee voted to defer action on a welfare drug testing bill for this session. Two days later, the committee followed the lead of the subcommittee, so the bill will see no further action this year, although it could be taken up again next year.

The bill, House Bill 73, would have required local social service agencies to screen welfare recipients for probable cause they were using drugs, and if probable cause was found, subject them to a full substance abuse assessment, which could include drug tests. Participants who failed the drug test would have been ineligible for benefits for a year unless they completed a drug treatment program.

Legislators expressed concern about the bill's cost after the Department of Planning and Budget estimated that the drug testing provision would cost the state $1.3 million in its first year and $1 million a year thereafter.

"It's just that the money situation is tight," subcommittee Chair Del. Riley Ingram (R-Hopewell) said Monday explaining his vote.

A companion measure in the Senate, though, is still alive. It is before the Senate Finance Committee.

Missouri, Tennessee Ponder Legislator Drug Tests

Awash in a whirlpool of proposals to subject welfare recipients to drug tests, legislators in two states, Missouri and Tennessee, are proposing that legislators themselves should undergo drug tests. In Missouri, a welfare drug testing bill was signed into law last year, while in Tennessee, a plethora of drug testing bills are currently before the legislature.

They are only two of about three dozen states that have seen drug testing bills aimed at welfare recipients, recipients of unemployment benefits, or other public beneficiaries introduced in the past year. But they are among the first to see the push expand to target legislators.

In Missouri, Rep. Rick Brattin (R-Harrisonville) has introduced House Bill 1225, which would require members of the General Assembly to undergo random, suspicionless drug testing at their own expense during the legislative session. Members who test positive for illegal drugs or drugs not lawfully prescribed would be immediately removed from office and barred from seeking elected office again for two years.

"Hardworking taxpayers don’t want their money to be subsidizing other people’s drug use," said Rep. Ellen Brandom (R-Sikeson) last year, explaining her push to test welfare recipients.

What's good for the goose is good for the gander, said Rep. Brattin.  "I think we should live by the same standard we are asking others to live by," he told the Kansas City Star. "Our salaries are paid by taxpayers, so we should assure them we aren't using that money on drugs."

The bill has been assigned to the House General Laws Committee, but it has not yet been scheduled for a public hearing.

Meanwhile, across the Mississippi River in Tennessee, two Democratic legislators, state Rep. Johnny Shaw and state Sen. Reginald Tate, are backing a bill, House Bill 2433 and its Senate companion bill, SB 3524, which would require the speaker of each chamber of the general assembly to develop and implement a drug testing program for legislators and staff.

Under the bills, state legislators and staff would be subjected to random, suspicionless testing for drugs and alcohol. A positive test result or a failure to take the test would be referred to the leadership of the chamber for disciplinary action.

They said the bill was in response to numerous Republican bills calling for drug testing for welfare recipients, workman's compensation recipients, state employees, private sector employees, and even making it a crime ("internal possession") to fail a drug test.

"I don’t think lawmakers should ever vote to make any laws they don't first and foremost abide by," Shaw told the Associated Press. "My question is, what lawmaker would not vote for it?"

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick (R-Chattanooga) might be one. He told the AP drug testing legislators wasn't his highest priority. "Most people would like to see people who don't work for their government paychecks to get tested first," he said.

The bills to drug test politicians make for good statehouse politics, but even if they were to pass, they are probably doomed. In a 1997 decision, Chandler v. Miller, the US Supreme Court threw out a Georgia law requiring drug tests for elected officials, saying it violated the Fourth Amendment's proscription against warrantless searches.

Indiana House Passes Welfare, Solon Drug Test Bill

The Indiana House Tuesday passed a bill that would create a pilot program for drug testing welfare recipients, but not before finding itself forced to vote for drug testing for its own members. The bill, House Bill 1007, now moves to the Senate.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Jud McMillin (R-Brookville), was on the verge of passage last week when Democratic legislators managed to pass an amendment to require drug and alcohol tests for legislators, causing McMillin to pull the bill last Friday. He brought it back Monday, but with an amendment to strip out the drug testing language for legislators and replace it with different testing language.

Under McMillin's amendment, the alcohol testing provision for legislators is gone, but half the legislature would face random drug testing each year. The House speaker and Senate president pro tem could also order drug tests of members. Members who refused a drug test could lose perks, such as their laptops, parking spaces, and franked mail.

The bill would set up a pilot program in three counties, where recipients of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) would have to undergo random, suspicionless drug tests. If they test positive, they would be denied benefits for one year.  On Monday, though, the House unanimously approved an amendment by Rep. Gail Riecken (D-Evansville), that would allow people to continue to receive TANF benefits after testing positive if they go into drug treatment and pass subsequent drug tests.

Indianapolis, IN
United States

Virginia Welfare Drug Test Bill Passes Committee

A bill that would subject some welfare recipients to drug testing passed the Republican-controlled House Health, Welfare & Institutions Committee on a 14-8 vote along party lines. Democrats protested to no avail.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/drugtest2.jpg
Introduced by Delegate Christopher Head (R-Roanoke), the bill, House Bill 221, would require local departments of social services to screen welfare applicants and recipients to determine whether probable cause exists to believe they are using illegal drugs. If probable cause is found, a formal substance abuse assessment, which could include drug testing, would be required. Persons who either refuse to take the drug test or fail it would be ineligible for welfare payments for one year, unless they underwent and complied with drug treatment.

"What are we trying to do here? asked Lionell Spruill Sr. (D-Chesapeake). "Now we're picking on people who are poor," he complained in remarks reported by the Richmond Times-Democrat.

Spruill asked whether others who receive largesse from the state, whether it is corporations with tax breaks or General Assembly members whose salaries are paid by taxpayers, should be tested as well.

"What about us?" he asked. "We make a big $17,600 a year -- why don't you test us?"

Supporters of the bill insisted their attention wasn't aimed at any particular group, but at keeping a close eye on the taxpayers' money.

"They're not being singled out," said Head. "As stewards of public money, we have a responsibility to make sure that that money's being spent right."

The Department of Planning and Budget has estimated that the bill would cost the state more than $1.5 million in the next fiscal year and about $1.2 million annually thereafter due to costs for staff, substance abuse screenings, assessments and drug testing. Welfare benefits would decrease by about $250,000 in the first year and about $500,000 thereafter.

Welfare or unemployment drug testing bills are on the agenda in other states as well. See our overview on the issue from last week here.

Richmond, VA
United States

Drug Testing for Public Assistance Bills Proliferate in New Year [FEATURE]

We are only a few weeks into the new year, but statehouse politicians across the country are already racing to see who can be next to introduce a bill that would require drug testing of people receiving public benefits. Within the last month, measures that would impose drug testing requirements have been introduced or are being contemplated in at least twelve states.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/drugtest2.jpg
The bills typically require beneficiaries to pay for their own drug tests (to be reimbursed later if they come up clean) and force those who test dirty off the rolls for specified periods. They also typically require a period of drug treatment at the would-be beneficiary's expense.

Faced with serious budget deficits as the economy continues sputtering through a weak recovery, would-be populists and small government conservatives see public benefits recipients as easy targets in their battle to ease the burdens of the taxpayers. With many Americans struggling hard to make ends meet, the narrative that welfare recipients or people receiving jobless benefits are just lazy junkies living resonates in some quarters.

Never mind that there is a paucity of evidence that welfare or jobless benefit recipients use drugs at a rate different from the public at large -- at the high end, a Michigan program a decade ago had 10% of welfare recipients testing positive for drugs, while Florida's now halted welfare drug testing program reported only a 2% positive rate, mostly for marijuana, though with data too incomplete at that stage to really know -- drug testing bills remain extremely popular, especially among conservatives.

It's not just Republicans. Although conservative Republicans dominate the legislative politics of drug testing the poor, in two states, Democratic legislators are leading the charge, and in one, it's a Democratic governor who is coming up with the idea.

But no matter the party, the rhetoric of the drug testers is remarkably similar. It's almost like they're reading from the same script.

"The working man, we're all subject to drug testing, and if they're gonna take the hard earned person's money and give it to someone on welfare, I think they ought to be tested the same way," Iowa Rep. Richard Arnold told WHO-TV in Des Moines as he announced his bill to drug test people on unemployment.

"If a job applicant has to take a random drug test, it only seems fair that a welfare applicant should too," said Georgia Rep. Doug McKillip (R-Athens). "We simply cannot allow the drug trade to be funded with government benefits," he told the Athens Banner-Herald. McKillips added that he wanted to apply any savings from the bill to paying for a tax cut on energy for manufacturers.

"If any of my employees fail a drug test, they're going to be fired," said Georgia Rep. Ron Stephens, a Savannah pharmacy owner and Republican Chairman of the House Economic Development and Tourism Committee. "It's leveling the playing field," Stephens insisted to 11 Alive TV in Atlanta. "It's making those recipients be subject to the very same regulations as those getting up going to work for a living," he added.

"Why in God's green pastures would we ever allow $1 of tax-supported assistance to go to an individual that is using illegal drugs?" South Dakota Rep. Mark Kirkeby (R-Rapid City) told the Rapid City Journal.

"I don't think any taxpayer in our state would say they're okay with funding a person's illegal drug use," Rep. John Mizuno (D-Kalihi Valley), who chairs the Human Services Committee, told KHON2-TV in Honolulu. Mizuno has introduced a pair of bills to drug test welfare recipients. "As taxpayers we need to save all we can, we don't need to raise people's taxes."

Such tropes have drug reformers, civil libertarians, and advocates for the poor crying foul. They accuse those pushing for drug testing of engaging in stereotyping and scapegoating.

"We feel like there's an ideology at work here, a sort of anti-welfare mentality intersecting with the drug war mentality," said Jill Harris of the Drug Policy Alliance. "They're using a budget crisis saying they want to reduce benefits for drug users as a way of pushing the drug war agenda."

"We look at it as basically another way to scapegoat the unemployed and blame them for the terrible economy they're in," said Rebecca Dixon, a policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project.

"There is really no point to this," said Dixon. "There is no evidence that unemployed workers are more likely to use drugs than anyone else. You have to have a solid work history to qualify for unemployment insurance, and you have to be actively searching for work. These are people who were working but lost their jobs, and now we're trying to treat them like they're something different. This feeds into really ugly stereotypes and could cause employers to not want to hire unemployed workers. There's already been some discrimination, and this doesn’t help the situation."

If legislators want to see a drug-free work force, said Dixon, there's already a way to do that. "If employers want to drug test workers, they can, and nearly half of them have pre-employment drug screening," she said. "They can do that already without the government stepping in."

Despite lingering questions about the constitutionality of mandatory suspicionless drug testing, bills are being filed or discussed that would require mandatory testing of welfare recipients in Georgia, Hawaii, Kentucky (also includes state medical assistance), Massachusetts, Mississippi (all public benefits, plus prove US citizenship), South Dakota, and Tennessee.

In Iowa and in South Carolina, bills mandating suspicionless drug tests for people receiving unemployment benefits are being bruited, while in West Virginia, a bill that would require mandatory drug tests for workers in state-sponsored job training programs has been proposed.

Although the Supreme Court has not directly addressed the constitutionality of suspicionless drug testing of people receiving government benefits, a divided federal appeals court threw out an earlier Michigan mandatory drug testing law on the grounds that it violated the Fourth Amendment's proscription of warrantless searches almost a decade ago. More recently, last year a Florida federal district court judge hinted strongly she would rule the same way as she granted a temporary injunction halting Florida's mandatory welfare drug testing law. A decision on whether to permanently throw out the law has yet to be made.

While the legal precedents may not be binding, they do allow advocates to make a strong case that such suspicionless drug testing laws are open to legal challenge, which has helped blunt most of them in past years. Last year, for example, although at least a dozen states took up mandatory drug testing bills, only Florida's passed.

"The courts have said you can't treat everyone as a criminal because he or she is seeking public benefits," said Rana Elmir of the ACLU of Michigan, which successfully challenged the state's last attempt at mandatory drug testing of welfare recipients and which is keeping a close eye on bills moving again there now. "You don’t lose your constitutional rights just because you're poor," she said.

"The ACLU thinks the courts have been very clear that mandatory suspicionless drug testing is unconstitutional, and it's also unfair and relies on mean-spiritedness and employs the ugliest stereotypes of the disenfranchised," said Elmir. "It's part of an unrestrained attack on poor people."

Some drug testing legislators have finally wrapped their heads around the notion that going with mandatory, suspicionless drug test language is a constitutionally risky business and are moving toward legislation that would require drug testing only of subsets of the population where a "reasonable cause" to suspect drug use can be cited. Bills using reasonable cause to test benefit recipients have already passed in Arizona, Indiana and Missouri.

Legislators in Georgia and Hawaii are hedging their bets by filing reasonable suspicion bills alongside mandatory welfare testing bills, while in Michigan, the health department has just done a study of reasonable cause testing, and in Pennsylvania, there is an ongoing pilot program for reasonable cause testing of welfare recipients. Both the Michigan and Pennsylvania measures should lead to efforts to pass broader reasonable cause bills later this year.

The move to reasonable cause drug testing bills means advocates cannot afford to rely on the courts as much as they do when confronting mandatory drug testing bills. And that means fighting the measures at the statehouse.

"This is forcing advocates like us to do a lot of defense," said Elizabeth Farid, deputy director of the National HIRE Project, which works to improve employment opportunities for people with criminal records. "We don't have the resources to move progressive bills forward and we're spending a lot of time trying to stop bad things like this happening. On the other hand, this really goes to the values of those conservatives and Tea Party members who've been behind the introduction of most of these bills," she noted.

"Bills that specifically target, for example, people who have a conviction for a drug felony might pass constitutional muster because that could be considered a basis for suspicion," said Farid. "But whenever you have the specter of drug testing, you have to ask if it is really effective. Is it worth the time and money? We often don't even get to that."

"We need to look at this as a public policy issue," said the ACLU of Michigan's Elmir. "Let's go to the experts and look at best practices. Those experts recommend that if Michigan is to have drug testing, it invest in training public employees to appropriately screen and identify those with addictions and help them through expanded treatment programs. Drug screening paired with expanded treatment has worked in other states," she said.

"We have to fight these bills, we have to educate our legislators and other elected officials, not only about the constitutional issues, but also about the way past programs have failed," Elmir said. "We like to believe our elected officials have good intentions in trying to help residents who use drugs, but mandatory testing is both ineffective and fiscally irresponsible. If Michigan must adopt drug testing, it should be guided by constitutional norms and focus on recovery rather than punishment."

Welfare or jobless benefits drug testing bills not only test the poor, they test the values of the nation, Elmir said.

"When we look at our Constitution, it embodies the value that our laws apply fairly and equally to all, irrespective of one's individual wealth," said the ACLU of Michigan's Elmir. "This is an important moment for these states contemplating these laws. It's our moment to set the standard for how we treat our most vulnerable residents. I hope we're on the right side of history."

Mississippi Public Benefits Drug Test Bill Proposed

Last year saw efforts in numerous states to pass laws requiring that people receiving or applying for public benefits, such as food stamps or unemployment, be required to take and pass drug tests. This year looks to be more of the same, and some Mississippi legislators want the Magnolia State to be first out of the gate.

Mississippi State House
State Sen. Michael Watson (R-Pascagoula) told the Mississippi Press Monday that he will introduce this week a bill that requires recipients of public benefits to take mandatory drug tests and prove their US citizenship. The bill would apply to people receiving Medicaid, food stamps, electronic benefit transfer cards and other state assistance program benefits.

"Our system is abused," Watson said. "Across the state, lawmakers have big hearts and truly want to help people, but we want to help people who also want to help themselves."

Public benefits are designed as temporary help for people going through hard times, he explained.

"To the people who are taking advantage of our generosity and hardworking Mississippian's tax dollars, we want to say no more," Watson said. "The folks that can work need to get a job and stop taking advantage of our system."

The unemployment rate in Mississippi was 10.5% in November, the last month for which state-level data are available. It has hovered at over 10% and above the national average for all of the past two years.

Watson said he has heard opposing arguments that such programs are likely to save states little money, but said it would still be worth it.

"It's a sensitive and an emotional topic, but you have to look at it logically," Watson said. "Even if you break even, it's well worth it in my opinion."

Watson said his bill is modeled on a Florida law implemented last year. He didn't mention that the law was blocked shortly after it went into effect. A Florida welfare recipient backed by civil liberties attorneys successfully sought a temporary injunction in federal court and is awaiting a decision on a permanent injunction.

In Florida, the federal district court found a high probability that suspicionless drug testing will be found to be an illegal search under the Fourth Amendment. That ruling was based in part on a US 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in 2003 that threw out a Michigan welfare drug testing law -- the last suspicionless drug testing bill to be passed before Florida's.

Other states have passed drug testing bills that seek to avoid the constitutional issues by limiting drug tests to those benefits recipients officials have reasonable grounds to believe have been using drugs. Such measures have been passed in Arizona, Indiana, and Missouri, and have so far not been tested in the courts.

Ed Sivak, director of the Mississippi Economic Policy Center, told the Mississippi Press such efforts are misguided. "This is a policy proposal that's looking for a problem," Sivak said.

Sivak cited studies of programs in Idaho and Louisiana that found only small percentages of people tested positive and that the programs could cost as much as they save. He also said the state could have to pay to defend the bill if it becomes law and is challenged.

Legislators seem split along party lines on the welfare drug testing issue.

Rep. Steve Holland (D-Plantersville) said he saw no benefit to it. "And for what reason?" he asked. "What value does it offer? Other than further humiliation of mankind?"

But Sen. Bruce Wiggins (R-Pascagoula) said he supported the bill. "If you're getting, essentially, free healthcare from the government, you don't need to be doing drugs," Wiggins said.

Watson's bill could go before the Drug Policy Committee, where he is vice-chairman, or before the Public Health and Welfare Committee, on which Wiggins sits.

Mississippi isn't the only state moving fast on the issue this year. A hearing on an unemployment drug testing bill is set for this week in South Carolina, and movement is happening in other states, too. Look for a feature article on the issue next week.

Jackson, MS
United States

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