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Tennessee Drug Testing of Welfare Applicants Stirs Political and Legal Controversy
It’s been 6 months since Tennessee rolled out its controversial drug testing program for welfare applicants, and the results were, like the whole program itself, controversial.
Out of 16,017 applicants for the state’s Families First cash assistance program, 279 people were chosen to be drug tested based on a set of preapproval questions. Only 37 of them tested positive for illegal substances – roughly 0.2 percent of the whole 16,017 – that’s two tenths of one percent – or 13.2 percent of the 279 tested.
The controversy is mainly over disagreements about singling out poor people for drug testing, whereas millions of Americans receive government assistance without any such requirement.
The state spent $5,295 to administer the program, including $4,215 to pay for the drug tests. This averages out to roughly $19 per tested person.
The Families First program provides a small monthly stipend for qualifying families with children. Each applicant was required to answer a three-question written drug screening test:
- In the past three months have you used any of the following drugs?
- In the past three months have you lost or been denied a job due to use of any of the following drugs?
- In the past three months have you had any scheduled court appearances due to use or possession of any of the following drugs?
- Marijuana (cannabis, pot, weed, etc.)
- Cocaine (coke, blow, crack, rock, etc.)
- Methamphetamine/amphetamine type stimulants (speed, meth, ecstasy, X, ice, etc.)
- Opioids (heroin, morphine, methadone, opium, buprenorphine, codeine, etc.)
A “yes” answer to any of the questions resulted in the applicant being asked to take a drug test. Refusal to take the written test meant instant disqualification from receiving benefits – 8 were disqualified. Another 81 who began the qualification process were disqualified because they never completed the application.
Encouraging people with substance abuse problems to enter treatment was allegedly one of the intents of the new law. Of the 37 people who tested positive, 25 were referred to drug treatment programs, and 5 actually enrolled.
But the CEO of Centerstone Tennessee, which operates more than 50 treatment facilities, said he is “skeptical” that it will ever achieve that goal. “The law was written with another purpose, to save money,” Middleton told The Tennessean newspaper. “I don’t think it’s going to scratch the surface” in treating addiction, he added.
The idea that only low-income people are drug abusers is seen by many as a flawed and biased opinion with no science or surveys to back it up. Where the idea comes from is anyone’s guess, but it’s already spread into at least a dozen states. Yet recipients of other government benefits, such as veterans, college students or farmers with crop subsidies, are never drug tested.
Opponents of the program say it clearly targets poor people over other recipients of government benefits, and with no discernible reason. “You are requiring more than 16,000 people to be screened for drug use based on the assumption that people who receive public assistance are more likely to use illegal drugs,” said Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee. “There’s no evidence to indicate that’s true. We support the need to combat drug addiction, but if the state truly wants to combat addiction, they should use their resources to fund drug treatment programs rather than blocking access to public benefit applicants, because we’re talking about providing for families.” Weinberg told The Tennessean that the ACLU plans to challenge the new law in court.
The (mostly Republican) backers of the law say they’re pleased with the results so far. “That’s 37 people who should not be receiving taxpayer subsidies, because they are not behaving as they are supposed to,” said state Rep. Glen Casada, a Republican from Franklin, TN. “If the taxpayers are going to support you there are certain criteria you need to adhere to. This is a good use of taxpayer money.”
Florida’s attempt to enact a law a couple of years ago, that required every applicant to undergo drug testing, was ruled unconstitutional by a federal court because it violated protections against “unreasonable searches and seizures.”
According to The Tennessean, drug screening of welfare applicants is “a trend picking up steam elsewhere.” Such laws are gaining momentum in Republican strongholds where anything that can reduce welfare or outright end public assistance of any kind is seen as desirable. At least 12 other states now have welfare applicant drug testing, and another 10 states have laws in the works. They all avoid the legal challenge that sank Florida’s law by enacting “suspicion-based” pre-screening programs which legally skirt constitutional protections.
Here at Novus, helping folks overcome their problems with substance abuse continues regardless of political maneuvering. Our patients come to us from all over, because they’ve heard about our superior medical drug and alcohol detox technology. If you or someone you care for has substance abuse issues, don’t hesitate to give us a call.
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