Drug testing of welfare applicants yields few positives

Six months after the rollout of a controversial law to drug-test people applying for public benefits, only a small fraction of low-income Tennesseans seeking financial assistance have tested positive for illegal drugs.

Thirty-seven of 16,017 applicants for the Families First cash assistance program between July and December tested positive for illegal substances, according to the Department of Human Services.

Another 81 lost their chance to receive benefits because they discontinued the application process at some point between the time they were required to fill out a three-item drug screening questionnaire and completing their application.

Opponents of the new rules say that they single out poor people for drug testing over other recipients of federal benefits — such as veterans, college students getting low interest loans or farmers with crop subsidies.

"You are requiring more than 16,000 people to be screened for drug use based on the assumption that people who receive public assistance are more likely to use illegal drugs," said Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee. "There's no evidence to indicate that's true.

"We support the need to combat drug addiction, but if the state truly wants to combat addiction, they should use their resources to fund drug treatment programs rather than blocking access to public benefit applicants, because we're talking about providing for families," said Weinberg, noting the ACLU plans to challenge the law in court.

Backers of the law, however, said they are pleased with the results so far.

"That's 37 people who should not be receiving taxpayer subsidies, because they are not behaving as they are supposed to," said state Rep. Glen Casada, a Republican from Franklin. "If the taxpayers are going to support you there are certain criteria you need to adhere to. This is a good use of taxpayer money."

Tennessee is one of 12 states that have enacted laws requiring drug screening and testing of welfare applicants, but it's a trend picking up steam elsewhere. Similar bills have been introduced in at least 10 other states so far this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The proposals have emerged after a federal court ruled Florida's drug testing law unconstitutional because it required drug testing of every applicant for public assistance, violating protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. Most of the new proposals are written to withstand a similar legal challenge and require testing only of individuals suspected of drug abuse. Such "suspicion-based" models rely on initial screenings, similar to the written test required of Tennessee applicants.

In the first six months of the program, the state spent $5,295 to administer the program, including $4,215 to pay for the drug tests.

Under the rules, all applicants for Families First, which provides a small monthly stipend for qualifying families with children, must answer a three-question written drug screening test.

Applicants who answer "yes" to any of the questions — if they have used illegal drugs, lost or been denied a job because of drug use or had any scheduled court appearances related to drug use in the prior three months — are asked to take a drug test.

Applicants who refuse to take the written test are disqualified from receiving benefits. Eight have been disqualified to date.

Of the 37 who tested positive, 25 were referred to a drug treatment program.

One of the stated intents of the new law was to encourage people with substance abuse problems to enter treatment. Ben Middleton, chief operating office for Centerstone Tennessee, which operates more than 50 facilities offering substance abuse treatment, said he is skeptical that it will achieve that goal.

"The law was written with another purpose, to save money," Middleton said. "I don't think it's going to scratch the surface" in treating addiction.

Officials with the Department of Human Services will review the program after its first full year, spokeswoman Devin Stone said.

Reach Anita Wadhwani at 615-259-8092 and on Twitter @AnitaWadhwani.

WHAT TENNESSEE ASKS

Tennessee's drug testing questionnaire for applicants for cash assistance has three questions:

1. In the past three months have you used any of the following drugs?

2. In the past three months have you lost or been denied a job due to use of any of the following drugs?

3. In the past three months have you had any scheduled court appearances due to use or possession of any of the following drugs?

Marijuana (cannabis, pot, weed, etc.)

Cocaine (coke, blow, crack, rock, etc.)

Methamphetamine/amphetamine type stimulants (speed, meth, ecstasy, X, ice, etc.)

Opioids (heroin, morphine, methadone, opium, buprenorphine, codeine, etc.)

Source: Tennessee Department of Human Services

BY THE NUMBERS

From July 1 to Dec. 31, 2014

16,017 people applied for Families First

279 drug tests were administered

37 drug tests were positive

25 were referrred for a substance abuse evaluation

5 enrolled in drug treatment or support group programs

8 refused to take the questionnaire and were disqualified

81 were denied benefits because they dropped out of the application process

$4,215 spent on drug tests

Source: Tennessee Department of Human Services


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