Economy

Drug Tests For The Poor Are Probably Coming Soon To West Virginia

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On Wednesday, lawmakers in the West Virginia House overwhemingly passed a bill that will drug test some of the poor who apply for state welfare benefits.

House members voted 91-8 in favor of legislation that would mandate a drug test for any applicant to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) who exhibited “reasonable suspicion” of drug use as determined by a caseworker, including drug-related convictions in the past three years. If an applicant fails a drug test, he’ll maintain benefits so long as he enrolls in drug treatment and job training programs. After a second failed test, an applicant could lose benefits for up to a year, and a third failed test would ban him for life. Parents who fail tests will also be investigated by Child Protective Services, although children would not be cut off from benefits if their parents lose them.

Lawmakers said that the program is meant to identify people with substance abuse problems and get them into treatment. “Our state is ate up with drug use,” said Delegate Josh Nelson (R) during the vote. “We’re ate up with it.”

Yet others seemed to voice a different motivation. “I expect people who live off my tax money to be drug tested,” said Delegate Scott Cadle (R). “I don’t want them laying around on welfare and drugs.”

The state Senate already approved the legislation, but will have to hold a vote of concurrence on the amendments added to it in the House. After that, it will head to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D) for a signature. Once the bill arrives at the governor’s desk, a spokeswoman for his office told ThinkProgress he will review it with his policy and legal teams and then make a decision about whether to sign it or veto.

Jennifer Meinig, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia, expressed concern that the program might be put into action. “We’re very disappointed at the prospect that it might become law,” she told ThinkProgress. “We hope the governor will make right this wrong and veto this constitutionally suspect legislation.”

Some amendments that had been offered by critics of the bill — including a measure that would drug test state lawmakers and another that would have drug tested any person applying for state funding, including business owners — were rejected. During debate, Delegate Barbara Fleischauer (D) said, “There are a lot of people who get state benefits. They’re state contractors. They’re Promise Scholars. Of those students, I’m sure some are consuming alcohol and drugs. No one is drug testing them. We’re drug testing poor people.”

Meanwhile, other critics argue that the state has made cuts in its budget to funding that could have gone to helping people with addiction. “We can’t do that, but we can require poor people to get drug tested even though in reality, it hasn’t worked in any other state,” said Delegate Mike Pushkin (D).

“It will waste taxpayer dollars to address an unsubstantiated problem,” Meinig told ThinkProgress. The 10 other states that already drug test welfare applicants have collectively spent nearly $2 million over two years to administer them. “It’s also based on false stereotypes [and] lays blame on the poor by implying they’re misusing very limited assistance on illegal drugs.”

There are also legal considerations, as Florida’s program that drug tested every applicant was ruled unconstitutional. Meinig said that even West Virginia’s more limited program based on reasonable suspicion raises constitutional concerns. “Even under reasonable suspicion, the government has to have a sufficiently high probability to believe illegal activity is occurring,” she said. “Because TANF applicants and recipients are no more likely than the general population to suffer from substance abuse, the government can’t meet its burden.”

In fact, data from other states that already drug test welfare applicants bear this out: failed drug test rates are oftentimes far below the drug use rate of the general population.