Drug Testing Welfare Applicants

State Rep. Guy Liebmann (R-OKC) announced last Friday that he will introduce a bill in the next legislative session requiring all welfare recipients to take a drug test.  Liebmann said his bill would be based on recently passed similar legislation in Florida.  Drug testing would be mandatory and applicants who test positive for controlled substances would be disqualified from the program for one year, unless they choose to seek treatment.

David Blatt at OKPolicy.org has written about a previous legislative attempt at mandatory drug testing for welfare recipients and called it an “unnecessary, expensive and counterproductive proposal.”

The American Civil Liberties Union is currently contemplating a lawsuit against the state of Florida, calling the state’s action “patriarchal, racist and mean-spirited” and a violation of Constitutional rights.  Were Oklahoma to pass a bill based on Florida’s, a lawsuit would likely follow.

In spite of the fact that the 1996 Welfare Reform Act authorizes states to impose mandatory drug testing for welfare applicants, there is precedent to support the ACLU’s position.  A 1999 Michigan law requiring welfare recipients submit to drug testing was declared unconstitutional in 2000 by a United States District Court.  That ruling was upheld in 2003 by a Federal Appellate Court, who said the law did not fit “the closely guarded category of constitutionally permissible suspicious testing”.

Aside from the cost of implementing a drug testing program, the legislature should take into consideration the potential cost for a lawsuit.  When the State of Utah was considering such a law the estimated cost for defending a lawsuit was over $1,000,000.  With the current budget shortfalls, Oklahoma simply cannot afford it.

Liebmann forgets to mention that Oklahoma already uses a “screen-and-refer” method of detection for drug abuse.  The Substance Abuse Subtle Screening Inventory has an accuracy rate of between 89-97 percent, can distinguish between drug users and abusers, and can detect alcohol abuse.  The Oklahoma Department of Human Services has reported in the last decade that a questionnaire they administered identified 94 out of 100 drug abusers.

With a successful program to detect drug abuse already in place and the potential for a massive costs associated with drug testing legislation, Oklahoma does not need this bill.  Preventing drug users from receiving welfare funds would be ideal, but not everything is possible either constitutionally or fiscally.

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