Here’s another fascinating piece of rock-ribbed conservative legislation introduced last week in the House–HB12-1046, sponsored by Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg in the House and Sen. Greg Brophy in the Senate, has a pretty simple objective:
The bill requires a person applying for assistance through the Colorado works program (works program) to take a drug test for the presence of controlled substances as a condition of eligibility for assistance. If an applicant fails the drug test, the applicant may reapply for assistance 1 year after the date of the drug test. However, a person may reapply after 6 months if the person successfully completes a substance abuse treatment program.
The applicant is required to pay the cost of the drug test. If the applicant passes the drug test, the applicant’s initial assistance will be increased by the cost of the drug test.
The dependent child of an applicant who fails the drug test shall still be eligible to receive assistance, but the county department of human services will be required to approve a protective payee to receive the assistance on behalf of the dependent child. The protective payee will also need to pass the drug test.
In a way, this really isn’t out of character for Sen. Greg Brophy, who regrettably claimed last year on talk radio that Colorado’s poor families were “playing in the lottery and buying cigarettes” instead of providing health care for their children. But legislation to force applicants to the Colorado Works temporary welfare program to submit to a drug test isn’t Sen. Brophy’s original idea. In Florida, similar legislation was passed last year at the behest of that state’s Gov. Rick Scott. And as the Tampa Tribune reported last fall, it’s not going very well:
Since the state began testing welfare applicants for drugs in July, about 2 percent have tested positive, preliminary data shows…
Having begun the drug testing in mid-July, the state Department of Children and Families is still tabulating the results. But at least 1,000 welfare applicants took the drug tests through mid-August, according to the department, which expects at least 1,500 applicants to take the tests monthly.
So far, they say, about 2 percent of applicants are failing the test; another 2 percent are not completing the application process, for reasons unspecified.
Cost of the tests averages about $30. Assuming that 1,000 to 1,500 applicants take the test every month, the state will owe about $28,800-$43,200 monthly in reimbursements to those who test drug-free.
That compares with roughly $32,200-$48,200 the state may save on one month’s worth of rejected applicants.
By October, the program had resulted in only 32 positive drug tests, and 7,000 negatives. The unresolved point of debate is over the estimated 1,600 people who failed to complete the application process during this period: some of them wouldn’t have anyway, but it’s reasonable to assume that some others were indeed deterred by the drug screening.
Regardless, on October 25th of last year, a federal judge ordered a halt to Florida’s drug testing program for welfare recipients, which the ACLU charged was “suspicionless drug testing” prohibited by Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure:
The court reaffirmed that testing urine for drugs is a search, that application for a public benefit cannot depend on an unconstitutional condition, and that the state of Florida had fallen woefully short of establishing any need to conduct suspicionless testing.
In 1999, the state of Michigan attempted to institute a policy of random drug testing for welfare recipients, struck down by federal courts in the case of Marchwinski v. Bowler for the same essential reason–”suspicionless” drug testing without a public safety need is unconstitutional.
So why would we want a law in Colorado that is a wash fiscally at best, has been ruled unconstitutional in other states, and forces 98% of a group of people to submit to a humiliating violation of privacy to catch the tiny percentage who may be doing something wrong? In Florida, Gov. Scott asserted his belief that welfare recipients use drugs at a higher rate than the general population–an assertion the results of Florida’s actual testing proves wrong. The University of Utah studied the issue recently, and concluded that the rate of drug use among welfare recipients is about the same as the general population. And it’s not like you can justify this by comparing it to, say, airport security, where there is an actual public safety objective.
No, folks. You only introduce bills like this when your presumptions–arrogant, meanspirited, maybe even a little bigoted presumptions–matter more than the facts.