Meno: Drug testing aid recipients is costly, unconstitutional

Apr. 12, 2013 @ 12:38 PM

In 2011, Florida passed a controversial law requiring applicants for public assistance to submit to mandatory, suspicionless drug tests before receiving any aid. Just four months later, a federal court stopped the law in its tracks after concluding that such compulsory urine tests were an unconstitutional invasion of privacy, in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and did not serve any state interests.

That outcome echoed a 1999 ruling in Michigan that struck down the nation's first-ever law requiring drug tests for public aid recipients. A federal judge in that case said Michigan's proposal set a "dangerous precedent" under the Constitution.

In the Florida case, U.S. District Judge Mary Scriven explained that two central arguments Florida used to justify its law – that welfare recipients used drugs at a higher rate than the general population, and that the state would save money through mandatory drug screenings – were in fact not true. Indeed, in the four months that Florida's law was in place, only 2.6 percent of more than 4,000 applicants tested positive for illegal drugs – a rate more than three times lower than the 8.13 percent of Floridians who use illegal drugs according to a federal estimate. As a result, Florida ended up paying more than $118,000 to reimburse applicants who passed the test, costing the government more than $45,000 more than the amount of aid that would have been given to people who failed their drug tests. A federal appeals court later upheld Scriven's ruling. 

The overwhelming legal and practical failures of these programs should have sent a clear message to lawmakers across the country that such proposals were wasteful, costly and ineffective – not to mention, unconstitutional. Unfortunately, several proposals very much like the one tossed out in Florida have been introduced this year in the North Carolina General Assembly.

On April 9, the state Senate's Judiciary Committee held a hearing on Senate Bill 594, which would require low-income families with children under 18 years old who apply for benefits under a state program called "Work First" to pass a mandatory drug test before receiving basic services such as child care, food stamps and help finding a job. If parents fail a single drug test – something that has often been found to produce inaccurate results – they will lose all Work First benefits for their children for an entire year.

Under the bill, Work First recipients – who are across the board very, very low-income families – would need to pay for the drug test themselves. The average drug test costs around $40, but as a legislative staff attorney confirmed at the April 9 meeting, multiple tests would be needed to screen for all illegal substances, and the combined cost could easily exceed $100. For families at or below the poverty line, $100 would be a staggering – and in many cases, impossible – amount to pay in order to take the test to apply for benefits.

As the statistics from Florida confirmed, there is no evidence whatsoever that recipients of public aid take illegal substances more often than the general population. In reality, studies have shown the opposite to be true. And because those who pass their drug tests will be reimbursed for the cost, North Carolina would undoubtedly end up shelling out thousands of dollars more to the vast majority who pass their tests than it would save from denying benefits to those few who fail. Why then, without any evidence of drug use by individuals, should the state waste all that money to force very poor parents to undergo an invasive search that only makes it harder for them to obtain basic services to help raise their children?

On a more basic level, denying job support, child care or food stamps to struggling families because of a substance-abuse issue won't help either the children or other family members. If a citizen truly has a substance abuse problem and needs help, it would be better for everyone concerned to get that person into treatment – not simply kick them and their children off crucial support services. Under current law, the state can make drug treatment a condition to receive Work First benefits – but it does not deny much-needed benefits to individuals and their family members, as this bill would so cruelly do.

North Carolina legislators should reject SB 594 and other bills like it. They will hurt rather than help vulnerable families in need, waste thousands of taxpayer dollars and inevitably be challenged in the courts.   

Mike Meno is communications director for the ACLU of North Carolina.