Speaker's drug plan tests the limits

October 23, 2011 

— During a recent talk at Mars Hill College, Republican Rep. Thom Tillis, leader of North Carolina's House of Representatives, proclaimed that the state should require drug testing for recipients of government assistance.

Immediately and justifiably, sarcastic retorts started flying - that such a policy would require drug testing of every child on the way to school, everyone who drives on public roads and definitely every lawmaker. Speaker Tillis' spokesman, Jordan Shaw, has since tried to clarify his boss's statements, saying, "It's about providing real help to those legitimately in need while protecting our programs from fraud, waste and abuse."

It's clear that Tillis is exploring ideas such as requiring drug testing for all recipients of what we typically think of as public assistance - food stamps, child care subsidies, unemployment insurance and perhaps Medicaid. In fact, several bills were filed in this year's legislative session to do just that.

If Tillis is indeed serious about implementing a broad drug-testing requirement for all recipients of public assistance, here are some things he must consider:

It's likely unconstitutional. The Supreme Court has held that a drug test constitutes a search within the definition of search and seizure in the Fourth Amendment. As a result, any drug testing must be based upon some suspicion of wrongdoing to pass constitutional muster.

Other states have already tested this legal ground and failed. In 2003, the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down as unconstitutional a law in Michigan that would have required universal drug testing of welfare applicants. The ruling also applies to Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee.

It probably will cost a ton of money. Drug testing runs about $30 to $40 per person tested, and that doesn't include the costs of the person who administers the test (i.e. personnel) and multiple tests to protect against false positives.

Considering that North Carolina's child-care subsidy program served more than 135,000 children during the last fiscal year, it would cost nearly $5 million at a minimum to conduct a drug test of one parent of every child. And there are more than 50,000 children who are eligible for subsidies but on the waiting list, so it would cost an additional $1.7 million to test them to determine eligibility.

That's a conservative, back-of-the-napkin estimate for just one public-assistance program. It would take millions of dollars more for the state to test everyone receiving public assistance - and that's every year.

Many private employers have added up the cost of drug tests by looking at a "catch" figure - how much it costs the business overall to catch a few positive employees - and found that it can cost businesses from $20,000 to $77,000 per person caught.

It's a solution in search of a problem. The number of people caught will be negligible. The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found that "proportions of welfare recipients using, abusing, or dependent on alcohol or illicit drugs are consistent with proportions of both the adult U.S. population and adults who do not receive welfare." In short, there is no evidence that people who receive public assistance use drugs at a greater rate than the general population.

In Florida, where a drug testing bill has just gone into effect, just 2 percent of public assistance applicants have failed the drug tests so far. And because the state of Florida required public assistance applicants to pony up the money for drug tests in the first place, it now has to reimburse the 96 percent of those who tested negative as part of the deal.

It will punish children and families. If a parent does test positive for drugs while applying for public assistance, it's the children who will suffer without food stamps, health care or other crucial services.

North Carolina has the 11th-highest poverty rate in the nation. Ensuring that more of those children are hungry or lack basic care isn't going to address that problem. Putting more funding into drug treatment and substance abuse programs would not only reduce the number of people on public assistance who use drugs, it could also help people get off of public assistance and protect children and families at the same time.

On the other hand, if what Speaker Tillis wants is an unconstitutional, costly, ineffective, wasteful and punitive way to avoid thinking about North Carolina's jobs shortage and economic troubles, then he's definitely on the right track.

Louisa Warren is a policy advocate with the N.C. Justice Center.

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