I recently saw another round of people espousing the viewpoint that US citizens receiving welfare aid should be forced to take drug tests before receiving assistance. The reasons are usually either “I don’t want them using tax dollars on drugs” or “Criminals shouldn’t get government aid” and “We need to protect children from drug using parents.” These concerns appear as rational defenses on the surface, but they are not supported by good evidence.
First and foremost: mandatory drug tests by any branch or level of government without probable cause is not just illegal, it is unconstitutional. You don’t even need to get very far into the amendments to find the reason. It is here, in the 4th Amendment:
“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
A drug test IS a search, and without probable cause, it is an illegal one. There is simply no justification for it. “But there are more drug abusers/alcoholics among welfare recipients, isn’t that just cause?” No, on two accounts. The idea that a higher percentage of welfare recipients abuse drugs and alcohol is false. A study by National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism researchers found that the “prevalence of alcohol abuse and/or dependence among welfare recipients (which ranged from 4.3 to 8.2 percent across the five welfare programs) and drug abuse and/or dependence (which ranged from 1.3 to 3.6 across the programs) comparable to general population rates for alcohol abuse and/or dependence (7.4 percent) and other drug abuse and/or dependence (1.5 percent).”
Also, merely because a higher proportion of a specific population are law breakers is not justification for a search. This is the rationale behind illegal racial profiling. Thus even if a higher portion of welfare recipients were drug users, each individual still has the protection from an illegal search.
The State of Michigan did institute such a policy to attempt to impose drug testing of welfare recipients – a policy that was struck down in 2003. The case, Marchwinski v. Howard, concluded when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld a lower court’s decision declaring the policy as unconstitutional. With that decision on the books, most states have wisely resisted attempting to institute similar policies. But for the sake of discussion, let us assume that such testing is legal. Should we still do them?
First look at the economic cost. The average cost of a drug test is about $40 per person tested. But this does not not include the costs of hiring personnel to administer the tests, to ensure confidentiality of results and to run confirmatory tests to guard against false positives resulting from passive drug exposure, cross-identification with legal, prescription drugs such as codeine and legal substances such as poppy seeds. In many cases, any actual savings from reducing benefits will be eaten up by the cost to run the test.
There is also a question of efficiency: is the drug test the best method of discovering abusers? Certain counties in Oregon experimented with drug testing on some welfare recipients, but the process was halted when it was found that drug testing was less effective in identifying drug abuse than less invasive, cheaper methods. An Oklahoma study found that a questionnaire was able to accurately detect 94 out of 100 drug abusers. The questionnaire was also useful in detecting alcohol abusers, something drug tests fail to accomplish. This is important because alcohol is the most commonly abused substance among Americans. Drug tests also often fail to identify people who are using more powerful, more addictive and more dangerous drugs like methamphetamine or cocaine, which exit the body’s system in a matter of hours or days.
Finally: does being a drug user negatively effect the user; i.e. is it something we should discourage? In a study of Florida TANF recipients, individuals who tested positively for drug use had earnings and were employed at nearly the same level as individuals who had tested negatively. In another study, drug use was as prevalent among employed TANF recipients as among the unemployed. This is also true of the general population, as most drug users have full‐time employment. As a group, drug users are not being a “drain on the system,” taking benefits without work.
This is not to say drug testing does not have its place. It can be used in specific instances, such as when other factors have established probable cause. But as a universal policy, it is illegal, expensive, and ineffective.
-That is all.