West Virginia Will Drug Test Poor People Who Need Welfare

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On Wednesday, West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D) signed a bill into law that will mandate drug tests for some of the state’s poor residents who apply for welfare benefits.

The law, which goes into effect in June, will require case workers to screen applicants for “reasonable suspicion” of drug use and refer that group to drug testing. If the applicant fails a drug test, he can maintain benefits as long as he enrolls in drug treatment and job training programs, but a second failed test could mean he loses 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.

The state still has to get federal approval, although 10 other states have gotten approval for similar programs that are currently up and running. West Virginia’s program is so far a pilot lasting three years.

Some state lawmakers justified the program as a way to crack down on the state’s drug abuse problem. But others, such as Delegate Scott Cadle (R), brought up different reasons. “I expect people who live off my tax money to be drug tested,” he said while the bill was being debated. “I don’t want them laying around on welfare and drugs.”

Critics, meanwhile, argue that if the state is going to drug test some recipients of state aid, all recipients, including lawmakers who draw state salaries, should be subjected to drug testing. Others warn that the drug testing regime will end up costing more state money without providing any extra funding for drug treatment. ThinkProgress has found that other states that drug test welfare applicants have collectively spent $2 million over two years without uncovering much drug abuse or finding savings.

There are also legal issues. Florida’s program, which drug tested every applicant to its welfare program, was tossed out by the courts as unconstitutional. The American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia argues that even the state’s “reasonable suspicion” screening raises constitutional concerns, especially since welfare recipients are no more likely to use illegal drugs than the general population.