Drug Testing of Welfare Recipients

E-Newsletter #64/February 3, 2011

Rick Scott ran for governor with a seven-point plan—one of those points was a proposal to test welfare recipients for drug use.

That may have helped get him elected. After the election, Scott told a Sun Sentinel reporter he is sticking to plans to push for mandatory drug-testing for Florida’s 3.1 million welfare recipients. 

“It’s practical and it’s fair. We shouldn’t be subsidizing people who are doing drugs,” Scott said at the time. 

But actually implementing broad drug testing of all those who receive cash payments from states has proved to be difficult. In Michigan, a state court ruled in 1990 that across-the-board testing violated individuals’ protections against unreasonable searches. In 2003, in a split vote, the U.S. 6th District Court of Appeals agreed. States can use screening tools to identify potential substance abusers and several do, according to a January 2011 Center for Law and Social Policy brief.

In South Dakota, the House Health and Human Services Committee Monday narrowly passed House Bill 1152, which would give the Department of Social Services the option to test recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. But the panel rejected a bill that would test recipients of all public assistance programs including Medicaid and food stamps issued through the Department of Social Services, Department of Health and Department of Human Services.

A 2009 Arizona law, for instance, prevents giving cash assistance to any person 18 or older who tests positive for illegal use of a controlled substance. The application process includes three screening questions to determine if there is reason to believe a person uses illegal drugs. Any “yes” answer triggers a drug test. Since the November 2009 implementation, 16 adult recipients have been required to take a drug test. According to Steve Meissner, director of communication for the Arizona Department of Economic Security, eight refused to take the test and lost benefits, eight were tested and one failed and was disqualified.

Florida Sen. Mike Bennett filed a bill for the 2011 session to establish a pilot program to screen for drugs among applicants for unemployment and report results in 2013. A 1998 pilot in Florida tested 8,797 applicants for cash assistance in two parts of the state over an 18-month period; 335 applicants failed the drug test. The pilot cost almost $90 per test, resulting in a $2.7 million estimated price tag for statewide implementation. Since then, the number of individuals receiving cash benefits in Florida has more than tripled.

Along with Florida, several other states are looking at drug testing for recipients of state assistance programs. In Missouri last week, the House gave first round approval to Rep. Ellen Brandom’s bill to mandate drug testing of welfare recipients if there is a “reasonable suspicion” of drug use by a social services agent. According to The Missourian, Brandom argued “taxpayers do not want to see their hard-earned dollars being spent for substance abuse products illegally.” The total financial impact of the legislation on the state budget is unknown, but the testing alone is projected to cost $2 million. The adult’s share of the cash benefit would be cut for a year and the children’s portion would be assigned to a third party. A second House vote is necessary to send the bill on to the Senate.

A bill in Kentucky is receiving support from both sides of the political aisle. Republican Rep. Lonnie Napier told The Huffington Post, "It's widely known here and all over the country that they'll take the food stamp card and buy good groceries with it, and then swap them for illegal drugs.”

Napier said his bill would save Kentucky millions of dollars. The bill applies to cash assistance, food stamps and Medicaid. He believes the bill will stand constitutional challenge if testing is random.

Kentucky House Speaker Greg Stumbo, a Democrat, is a bill co-sponsor. "As attorney general and as a legislator, I have done all I can to curb illegal drug use in the state. I view this issue in that light, and that's why I signed on as co-sponsor," he told The Huffington Post.

In West Virginia, Delegate Craig Blair proposed a testing bill for several years. He added a new twist to his 2010 bill—to require all legislators to be drug tested on the first day of the session. The bill did not pass in 2010 and Blair is no longer in office.

Drug testing bills are also before this year’s legislatures in IllinoisNebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Oregon.