Tennessee's Welfare Drug Testing Yields Poor Results

| by Kathryn Schroeder
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A new controversial law in Tennessee that requires some individuals applying for public assistance to undergo a drug test prior to approval has yielded poor results.

The new law went into effect six months ago, reports WBIR, and the first figures have been released for the period of July to December, 2014, from the Department of Human Services.

Only 37 of 16,017 applicants for the Families First cash assistance program tested positive for illegal substances.

This amounts to 13% of those 279 selected for testing based on their completed questionnaire, but only 0.2 percent of the total who applied for assistance.

There were 81 who neglected to complete the application process from the time they began to when they were required to complete a three-item drug screening questionnaire.

Think Progress reports the overall rate of drug use in Tennessee is 8 percent, making the 0.2% looking for government assistance an “infinitesimal rate.”

The total cost of the Tennessee program for the first six months was $5,295 to maintain the program, including $4,215 to pay for the drug tests.

The questionnaire, obtained from the Tennessee Department of Human Services, consists of the following three questions:

1. In the past three months have you used any of the following drugs?

2. In the past three months have you lost or been denied a job due to use of any of the following drugs?

3. In the past three months have you had any scheduled court appearances due to use or possession of any of the following drugs?

Marijuana (cannabis, pot, weed, etc.)

Cocaine (coke, blow, crack, rock, etc.)

Methamphetamine/amphetamine type stimulants (speed, meth, ecstasy, X, ice, etc.)

Opioids (heroin, morphine, methadone, opium, buprenorphine, codeine, etc.

A “Yes” answer to any of the questions requires the individual take a drug test.

If the person refuses to take the drug test they are immediately disqualified from receiving benefits. A total of eight people have been disqualified to date. Five people enrolled in drug treatment or support group programs.

There are opponents to the law that think the government is singling out poor people for drug testing over others who receive federal benefits, like veterans and college students.

"You are requiring more than 16,000 people to be screened for drug use based on the assumption that people who receive public assistance are more likely to use illegal drugs," said Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee. "There's no evidence to indicate that's true.

"We support the need to combat drug addiction, but if the state truly wants to combat addiction, they should use their resources to fund drug treatment programs rather than blocking access to public benefit applicants, because we're talking about providing for families," Weinberg added.

A challenge to the law is being planned by the ACLU, Weinberg said.

Those who support the new law are happy with the results.

"That's 37 people who should not be receiving taxpayer subsidies, because they are not behaving as they are supposed to," said state Rep. Glen Casada (R-Tennessee). "If the taxpayers are going to support you there are certain criteria you need to adhere to. This is a good use of taxpayer money."

Tennessee is one of 12 states that has a law in place to drug screen and test welfare applicants. An additional 10 states have introduced legislation to adopt similar programs.

The bills are structured on a “suspicion-based” model that relies on an initial screening, like the written questionnaire required in Tennessee. The need to structure the law in this manner is due to a federal court ruling in Florida that said drug testing was unconstitutional for every applicant for public assistance. It was found it violated protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Sources: Think Progress, WBIR

Photo Source: Wikipedia Commons, The Tennessean via WBIR