By Teresa Welsh |
At a time when increasing numbers of Americans are struggling financially and relying on public assistance, implementing mean-spirited and ineffectual mandatory drug-testing policies is both unconscionable and unconstitutional.
In the past year alone, 36 states introduced legislation that would have required drug testing of individuals who receive many forms of public assistance, including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, welfare, unemployment, and Medicaid. But, as evidenced by the failure of the proposed legislation in most of those states, legislators apparently realized the futility, negative fiscal impact, and legally untenable nature of these laws.
The law in Florida, passed earlier this year but blocked by a federal judge last month, exemplifies the absurdity of these programs. Beyond being unconstitutional, the law forced all people applying for TANF—who by definition have very limited means—to pay for the cost of their drug test. If an individual's drug test came back negative, the state then reimbursed the cost of the test.
The law is based on the erroneous assumption, trumpeted repeatedly by Florida Gov. Rick Scott, that people on public assistance use drugs at a higher rate than the general population—a premise at odds with reality. Indeed, just 2 percent of Florida drug tests came back positive during the law's brief implementation, a rate four times lower than the estimated drug use of Floridians ages 12 and up, according to recent estimates by the Department of Justice. Furthermore, the law is solely punitive. If the state had an interest in combating drug addiction and its corresponding societal costs, it would offer treatment services for the few people who do end up failing the test.
And, to make matters worse, the state of Florida used federal TANF funds to reimburse those who passed their test. In other words, federal taxpayer money specifically purposed to help people with rent payments, heating costs, children's clothing, and other essentials was used to pay for drug tests that did little but confirm that there is no heightened epidemic of drug use among recipients of public benefits. At the same time, Florida this year cut programs like Healthy Start that have been proven to help children and families.
In her ruling last month, U.S. District Judge Mary Scriven, an appointee of President George W. Bush, noted that "the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment is a fundamental constitutional right" and that to subject all applicants for TANF to drug testing would "cause irreparable harm" to those subject to the screening. Rebutting Florida's scurrilous claim that the program would save the state significant amounts of money, Judge Scriven also pointed out that "the State has not shown by competent evidence that any TANF funds would be saved by instituting a drug testing program."
Mandatory drug testing of those receiving public benefits is just plain wrong. It demonizes and demoralizes those Americans most in need of help, and it perpetuates the dangerous, baseless notion that low-income people and communities are somehow less deserving of the constitutional protections and basic human dignity to which we are all entitled. We should not support ineffective, unconstitutional, and costly government programs that intrude into the lives of Americans and target the most vulnerable among us during the worst economic period in decades.
About Vanita Gupta Deputy Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union
Jack Kingston U.S. Representative, Georgia's 1st District
David Vitter U.S. Senator, Louisiana