Under the guise of ensuring prudent government spending and personal accountability, state Legislatures across the country are proposing that mandatory drug testing be a condition for receiving welfare assistance. Everything from food stamps to unemployment benefits would be awarded only after screening for illicit drug use, and supporters are championing this measure as a sensible means of preventing the waste of tax-payers’ dollars on “junkies” and “addicts.”
Whatever the intent, such drug testing policies violate the constitutional rights of those who are already facing financial hardship and simply will not stand up against legal challenge.
In previous cases, the US Supreme Court has ruled that drug testing constitutes a form of search, and when carried out by a government agency, falls under the regulation of the fourth amendment. As a result, the prerequisite of probable cause must exist prior to conducting a drug test. Such conditions must be met on a case by case basis, and the blanket approach of screening all welfare applicants is overly presumptive.
In essence, states are taking the position that all welfare applicants are suspected drug users and are subject to being searched. There is no reasonable basis for such suspicion, hence the conviction that this form of obligatory drug testing is illegal.
Of course not all mandatory drug testing programs are constitutionally prohibited. Select government employees can be subjected to testing when there is a “compelling interest.” Jobs related to public safety or that have the potential to expose the public to danger meet this definition, and they justifiably warrant pre-emptive drug testing.
Additionally, private enterprises, which by definition fall outside the realm of government, are free to conduct random drug screening as a condition for employment.
Legality issues aside, drug testing mandates are oppressive, imprecise and largely ineffective. Welfare recipients rarely garner much public sympathy, but stigmatizing poverty by associating it with drug abuse is patently malicious.
While there is a definite correlation between drug use and poverty, there is no indication of causation. That is to say, similar conditions lead to both, but drug abuse is not a source of poverty and vice versa. And at a time when an increasing number of people are reliant on state and federal welfare, the link between the two is weakened further.
In addition, studies from the Department of Health and Human Resources have found that the unemployed and employed use illicit drugs at comparable rates, and in terms of absolute numbers, 70 percent of illegal drug users between the age of 18-49 are employed full-time.
Supporters of mandatory testing claim such policies will serve as de facto rehabilitation programs. This argument that screening welfare applicants will help curtail drug use is, at best, disingenuous. To begin with, the most commonly used testing procedures specifically focus on a short list of illegal substances and fail to identify the most commonly abused drug — alcohol.
More to the point, simply denying welfare benefits to drug users is unlikely to break the powerful grip of addiction. On the contrary, pushing people into further destitution will tend to increase drug use as their situation becomes more dire and hopeless.
The sentiment that drug users are undeserving of government aid is understandable, and mandatory drug testing may very well have a practical and positive impact on government welfare programs.
But the fact remains that this form of financial assistance must be allocated in a manner consistent with the Constitution. That some small percentage of welfare benefits will go towards the purchase of illicit drugs is a regrettable but necessary consequence of constraining government intrusiveness and maintaining personal freedom for all.
Marc Anderson is a 3rd-year cell biology Ph.D. student and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.