A controversial new Tennessee law to drug-test applicants for public benefits has already resulted in the Department of Human Services disqualifying people seeking aid since the rules went into effect July 1.
Four people were turned down because they refused to participate in any part of the drug screening process. Six other people willingly submitted to a drug test, and one tested positive. Officials with the Department of Human Services say they are making contact with that applicant for further action — which could include referral to a drug treatment program as a condition of receiving benefits or disqualification if the person refuses.
The 10 people affected by the new rules are a small fraction of the 812 people who applied for Tennessee Families First cash assistance program since the measure took effect. The vast majority — 802 — passed the initial written drug screening.
But opponents and backers of the law say they are keeping a close eye on how the rules affect low-income welfare applicants: Will they root out drug users who could potentially abuse the small cash stipend intended to aid families with children? Or are the new rules an unconstitutional intrusion into the privacy rights of poor Tennesseans?
"I think this is a positive step, and I hope that individuals get the help they need," said state Sen. Stacey Campfield, author of the law, who noted that new rules direct state officials to connect applicants who test positive to treatment programs.
But Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, said the law is unconstitutional and the group intends to challenge it in court.
"We don't test individuals who are seeking government support like farmers, veterans and students, so we have to take a step back and question why limited-income people are being targeted and have to submit to these intrusive searches," Weinberg said.
Tennessee is one of at least 11 states with a law requiring drug screening or testing for public benefits, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. A recent legal challenge to a Florida law requiring drug testing of all applicants for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families — in Tennessee, Families First — was upheld by a federal appeals court, which ruled that the law violated constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.
Tennessee's law differs from Florida's in that it requires applicants to first fill out a brief written questionnaire about drug use, rather than testing all who apply.
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 then asked to take a drug test. The Department of Human Services pays for the tests, which cost $20 to $35 each.
Applicants who refuse to take the written test or the drug test are disqualified from receiving benefits.
Applicants who test positive are required to take a second confirmation test. If the results are positive again, the applicant is given a referral to a drug abuse treatment or recovery support group and has 10 days to verify enrollment or placement on a waiting list.
Applicants can receive benefits as long as they continue in the program and test negative once it is completed. The department provides necessary child care during the drug treatment program.
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
802 answered no to all questions
4 refused to take the questionnaire and were disqualified
5 passed drug tests after answering yes on the questionnaire
1 tested positive for drugs