State welfare drug testing proposal debated

By Tim Martin

Associated Press

LANSING (AP) -- Gov. Rick Snyder's office says it's too early to tell if Michigan will push to require drug tests for welfare applicants, an issue likely to be debated in many states this year.

Requiring a clean drug test as a condition for receiving cash assistance would have some support within the Republican-led state Legislature. But supporters want to make sure the plan would survive a legal challenge, unlike a Michigan plan from more than a decade ago that was derailed by federal courts.

New legislation that would require passing a drug test as a condition of receiving cash assistance was introduced in the state House last month. Alternatives to that proposal are possible.

The Michigan Department of Human Services, under orders from the state Legislature, recently prepared a memo related to possible drug testing of welfare applicants and recipients. The department said the testing would be "feasible" and could include a possible pilot program for suspicion-based drug testing of welfare cash assistance applicants and recipients.

Suspicion would be based on the results of drug screening, which could range from questions on welfare applications to "professional screening tools."

The merits of such a plan will be debated and evaluated, but it's not guaranteed to be implemented.

"It's too early and premature at this point in the process for any further speculation," Sara Wurfel, a spokeswoman for the Republican governor, told The Associated Press in an email this week.

Some previous plans to drug test welfare applicants have run up against constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure.

Michigan briefly ran a pilot program to drug test welfare recipients in late 1999. The American Civil Liberties Union sued, and a federal appeals court eventually ruled the drug testing plan violated the constitution. Part of the legal challenge was based on the claim that constitutional rights were violated because testing was done without "individualized suspicion."

Florida last year approved a law requiring drug tests for welfare applicants, but it's on hold because of a legal challenge.

Other states have tried different approaches. Missouri enacted a law that requires the state's social services agency to develop a program for screening welfare applicants and recipients, and then test those for whom there is reasonable cause to suspect illegal drug use. People who refuse to be checked, and those who test positive and do not complete a substance abuse program, will be ineligible for benefits through the welfare program for three years. While participating in a substance abuse program, people could keep their benefits.

Many other states are proposing plans to drug test applicants or recipients for some public assistance programs. The proposals likely will be debated in Alabama, Indiana, Ohio, Tennessee and other states this year.

In Michigan, a bill that would require a clean drug test as a condition of cash assistance eligibility is pending in the state House. The measure does not specify suspicion-based testing and appears to be broader, potentially applying to all applicants.

Republican House Speaker Jase Bolger has not yet taken a position on the issue, spokesman Ari Adler said.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville voted in favor of similar legislation when he was a member of the state House, spokeswoman Amber McCann said.

"Many employers require applicants to take a drug test prior to being offered a job, and even go on to test employees routinely," McCann said in a statement.

Supporters of the plan also consider it a safeguard of taxpayer money.

Some groups question why the state might move to single out welfare applicants for drug testing as opposed to other recipients of taxpayer money.

"The question arises why is the state singling out and punishing poor people," said Michael Steinberg, ACLU of Michigan's legal director. "There's a whole range of people who receive government assistance."

Published: Fri, Jan 6, 2012