Tox Tuesday: Drug testing public assistance recipients

Drug test blank form with Variety of medicinesIn an effort to save taxpayer dollars and make sure public assistance is not being used to subsidize the potential drug habits of its recipients, several states have passed legislation requiring those receiving welfare or other public assistance to pass a drug test. However, some believe the data collected from these states is showing this type of legislation is costing more than it’s actually saving, while others are convinced these laws have yet to provided any useful data at all.

While each state differs in their testing requirements, 12 states have passed legislation regarding drug testing or screening for public assistance applicants or recipients. These states include Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Utah. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, in some states testing applies to all applicants, while in others, such as Florida and Oklahoma, there must be a reason to believe a person is engaging in illegal drug activity before they can be subjected to a drug test.

In addition, even more states, including Connecticut, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas and West Virginia have proposed legislation requiring some form of drug testing or screening for public assistance recipients. However, before these states sign their legislation into law, proponents of the bills are urging lawmakers to evaluate the data collected from the other states where the law already exists.

For example, in 2011, Missouri adopted a law that requires screening and testing for all Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) applicants. According to a recent article, the testing began in March 2013 and by early 2014, 446 of the state’s 38,970 applicants were tested. As it turned out, only 48 people testing positive for drugs.

The budgeted cost for that year’s testing program was $336,297 but according to the article, the first three years of the program will likely cost the state more than $1.35 million, including start-up costs. Based on the results of the testing, many are now arguing that this money is being wasted and there are other areas of the state budget that could benefit if these funds were reallocated.

The same is the case in Oklahoma, where the law was passed in 2012 requires a drug-screening test of all applicants for whom there is a “reasonable cause” to believe they are using illegal substances. As stated in the article, from November 2012 through November 2014, 3,342 applicants were screened and 2,992 were selected for further testing. Over the two years, 297 people tested positive for illegal substances, costing the state an estimated $385,872.

These same types of results are being seen in virtually every state that has begun drug testing on public assistance recipients. Another article reports that in Tennessee, just one person out of 800 applicants tested positive for drugs. The same happened in Florida with only 2.6% of the applicants testing positive, when the state had previously concluded that approximately 8% of their citizens were drug abusers. According to the article, this means far fewer people on government services are using drugs than those who are not.

However, when this data is actually examined it is easy to notice some glaring inconsistencies. Take Tennessee for example. The false-positive rate for drug tests is usually at least 1% and can be anywhere between 1-5% depending on the type of test used. That means if every single welfare recipient in Tennessee was clean, there would still be between 1% to 5% positive drug tests. Instead, they recorded 0.12% positive drug tests, which is described as “impossibly good” in another article.

As it turns out, the drug tests that many of these people were subjected to were not forensic drug tests such as blood or urine analysis, but rather written tests where one simply had to check “yes” or “no” when asked if they use illegal drugs. If they checked “yes,” their benefits could be taken away, but if they checked “no” they would continue to receive their benefits.

As stated in an article, the plan was originally to require everyone to take a urine test, but because Florida legislature ruled that urine-checking people without prior suspicion was unconstitutional. Those in leadership positions that were in favor of the testing decided that instead of backing down on the issue, they would give people the written test instead. This form of testing then carried over into the other states as well.

However, things get even more mottled when you look at the data gathered before Florida banned urine testing without suspicion. According to an article, at this point welfare recipients were asked to pay for their own drug tests, and would be reimbursed if the results came back negative. A total of 7,000 welfare users did this, but 1,600 declined to do so. It appears that those who declined have yet to be followed up with.

Other data from the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse is examined in the same article and states that illegal drug use was slightly higher in families on government assistance (9.6%) than families not on government assistance (6.8%). Also, the National Coalition for the Homeless notes that about 26% of those homeless use drugs, which is about two and a half times as high as the general population’s drug use.

Based on these findings, there are many aspects of these laws that have yet to be resolved. Still, other states are moving ahead with implementing programs for screening and drug testing based on reasonable suspicion. While it is unclear what methods of testing will be utilized moving forward and when data will become available, the National Conference of State Legislatures, states that adding accountability to assistance programs and ensuring taxpayer dollars are not going to pay for narcotics, still remain the goals of these laws.

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