USDA To Georgia: You Can’t Drug-Test Food Stamp Recipients


In the latest expansion of government drug tests, Georgia passed a law in March requiring the testing of some food stamp applicants and recipients. But this week, a USDA official told Georgia they can’t implement the law.

“[Food and Nutrition Service] policy prohibits states from mandating drug testing of SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) applicants and recipients,” Robin D. Bailey, regional administrator of the USDA Food and Nutrition Service, wrote in a letter to state officials. “Requiring SNAP applicants and recipients to pass a drug test in order to receive benefits would constitute an additional condition of eligibility, and therefore, is not allowable under law.”

Food stamps are a federal program, so Georgia can’t implement a requirement that conflicts with federal policy. Georgia was the only state to require drug testing of food stamp recipients. But many states have imposed drug testing requirements on applicants for other public benefits, including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, as well as on public employees, as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and Big Pharma lobby for the laws.

Drug testing is considered a “search” under the Fourth Amendment and requires reasonable suspicion that an individual is guilty of a crime. Courts have carved out a limited exception for instances when public safety risk is high. Employees who use heavy machinery, for example, may be subject to drug testing. In each of these cases, the courts have noted that there is little evidence of a relationship between drug use or abuse and the targeted programs that would trigger public safety concerns. Georgia attempted to tailor its policy more narrowly, by mandating drug testing only of those applicants or recipients whom workers have “reasonable suspicion” are taking drugs.

But as reflected in USDA policy, there is little relationship between drug use and public benefits, despite fictional reports that individuals are using food stamps to buy pot. Several states do retain laws that ban those with a felony drug conviction from food stamps for life. But Missouri became the latest state to lift the bans that are increasingly falling out of favor, after the bans were imposed as part of President Bill Clinton’s welfare reform.