Tennessee is plunging ahead with a plan to drug-test some welfare
applicants even though a Florida judge stopped a similar program over
constitutional issues and Arizona authorities caught only one
welfare-receiving drug abuser in three years.
Reports from the Tennessee agency charged with implementing the drug-testing law
show the state may try to catch drug-using applicants with a diagnostic
quiz that includes questions such as "Have you abused more than one
drug at a time?" and "Do you ever feel bad about your drug abuse?" If
they failed the questionnaire, they would face urine screenings.
passed its law last year and gave the Department of Human Services
until July 1, 2014, to implement it. It's taking cues from Arizona's
program, which went into effect in 2009.
"I don't rule out the
possibility that we've captured two idiots," said Arizona state Rep.
John Kavanagh, a former police detective who sponsored the legislation
there. "If I was going to do it again, I would attempt to do a
cross-check of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families rolls and records
of drug arrests, but based on our budget, I don't want to create that
"I wish the Tennessee legislature all the luck. If they
are able to crack through the judicial barriers, we will benefit from
Tennessee's sponsor for the drug law, Sen.
Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, said he's not discouraged by what's
happening in other states, and he would consider the law successful if
it drove down the number of applicants simply because they knew they
would be tested.
Groups who support drug-testing laws nationwide
argue that the Fourth Amendment prohibition on searches without
reasonable cause shouldn't apply in the case of welfare applicants.
Rachel Sheffield, a policy analyst for The Heritage Foundation, a
right-leaning think tank in Washington, said it's fair to require
certain behavior from people who receive taxpayer assistance.
have attitudes or habits that make them less likely to seek
employment," she said. "If it were going into their homes and drug
testing them, that would be different."
$1.3M savings cited
About 51,000 Tennessee families receive Temporary Assistance for
Needy Families, a cash payment that averages about $164 a month,
according to the most recent Department of Human Services report. Adults
are required to keep their children in school and participate in a
work-training program. They can't receive benefits for more than 60
months in their lifetimes, although the clock on benefits can stop and
start depending on their circumstances.
The Department of Human
Services is required to update the state legislature each quarter on its
progress with drug-testing new applicants for the benefit. The fiscal
note on the original bill estimated it would cost Tennessee about
$172,000 a year for the program and save $1.3 million in benefits.
first DHS report, filed in October, outlines program development in six
states, including Arizona, Florida and Georgia, which decided to
suspend implementation of its program until the lawsuit that halted
Florida's makes its way through the courts. The most recent report,
dated April 1, outlines the possibility of using the Drug Abuse Screening Test evaluating tool to show reasonable cause among program applicants.
spokeswoman Devin Stone said no one was available to comment on the
department's progress. In an email, she said applicants who test
positive for drugs would have several resources - none required to be
funded by the department - including substance abuse programs and
12-step groups to get clean so they can reapply.
The law says
those who provide evidence of treatment can get six months of welfare
benefits and then be retested. They would lose benefits if they fail
Florida's law didn't include a questionnaire.
Applicants had to pay for their own drug tests, which cost $25 to $50,
then be reimbursed if those came back negative. In four months of
testing, 108 out of 3,938 applicants failed, but hundreds more didn't
take the test and were disqualified from benefits. Temporary assistance
approvals dropped from 8,495 in September 2010 to 4,586 in September
2011, just before the judge stopped the program.
supporters said that was success - people who knew they were on drugs
weren't even bothering to apply. But it's more likely potential
applicants simply couldn't afford the test or find a certified lab to
administer it, said Maria Kayanan, a Miami-based attorney for the
American Civil Liberties Union. Some of Florida's 67 counties didn't
offer a single lab for periods of time.
Kayanan sued on behalf of
Luis Lebron, a Navy veteran and single father who refused to take the
test on constitutional grounds. A judge issued a temporary stay in
October 2011, which an Atlanta appeals court panel upheld in February.
Gov. Rick Scott vowed to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, but
his state restored benefits to those who failed the test.
meantime, the Florida Department of Children and Families granted
benefits to those who initially missed out because of failing or not
taking the drug test.
Kayanan said she doesn't see Tennessee's pre-screening questionnaire as solving the overall constitutional issue.
our opinion, that's paying lip service to constitutional reason or
cause," she said. "It's singling out an entire class of individuals for
screening because they are poor and in need of temporary assistance. Are
there degrees of constitutionality? I don't think so."
Arizona's law, after welfare applicants receive one month of benefits,
they are required to take the questionnaire, and then take it again
every six months as part of the recertification process, said John
Bowen, an Arizona state legislative specialist. He said the law has had
no effect on the number of applications there.
Regardless of how
it plays out in Tennessee, those who work with the impoverished and drug
addicted are concerned about the law's implications.
out an incorrect message that anyone in need of assistance is at high
risk of using illicit drugs based on their status," said Ben Middleton,
chief operating officer for clinic services at Nashville-based nonprofit
Centerstone. "Drug addiction is a disease. It's a health-related issue.
To take the position that we're going to punish you and assume that you
have this disease unless you can prove otherwise is unacceptable."
better use of state resources would be creating more education and work
opportunities so Tennesseans don't find themselves needing welfare,
said Pam McMichael, executive director of the New Market, Tenn.-based
Highlander Research and Education Center.
"It doesn't take stigmas
away, it doesn't make our neighborhoods safer," she said. "It's an
extension of an already unsuccessful war on drugs."