Testing for illegal drugs in welfare recipients

Although national statistics show that about 8 percent of the general population uses illegal drugs, only 2 percent of welfare recipients in Florida have tested positive since a two-month old law took effect that requires applicants for welfare to pass a drug test.

It is too soon to tell if the new drug screening law has actually discouraged welfare recipients who use illegal drugs to look to state-run welfare programs for money, however, last month, the number of St. Augustine and St. Johns County welfare recipients was down 8 percent over the same month in 2010.

Reductions in welfare applications in other parts of the state are seen by Governor Rick Scott’s office as “a good thing” — since, in previous years, the cost to administer Florida’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families steadily increased.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida has a different view. They argued in a federal court in Orlando yesterday that the mandatory urine tests violate welfare recipient’s Fourth Amendment rights against “unlawful search and seizure”. U.S. District Court Judge Mary S. Scriven listened to arguments during the three-hour hearing.

In St. Augustine today, there is no cost to welfare applicants for the test — IF they pass. If they fail, the test fees, which run between $10 and $25 and are paid up front, will not be reimbursed. Applicants can be re-tested but must provide a urine or hair sample and pass a drug screening before receiving any further welfare benefits.

The ACLU lawsuit was brought on behalf of Luis Lebron — a University of Central Florida student, Navy veteran and father of a 4-year-old son who was denied welfare assistance based on failing the drug test.

Maria Kayanan, ACLU of Florida associate legal director and lead counsel for the plaintiff, told reporters, “We were happy to make our case today that Florida’s new law requiring government searches without suspicion is a violation of basic constitutional protections.” A similar law in Michigan was struck down in federal court in 2000.

“Congress seems to be pretty confident that our law is constitutional,” Governor Scott’s spokesman, Lane Wright told reporters. “Congress passed a welfare reform law in 1996 giving states authority to do drug testing.”

“It’s something the governor strongly believes in, and frankly, a lot of Floridians believe in, too,” Wright said. A Quinnipiac poll released last week showed 71 percent of Floridians supported the welfare drug-testing policy.

Share your thoughts with our readers >>