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A helping hand in the land of the drug-free

The ACLU says mandatory drug testing wrongly stigmatizes those who need public assistance economically.
The ACLU says mandatory drug testing wrongly stigmatizes those who need public assistance economically.
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In nearly three dozen states this year, legislation has been proposed to require mandatory drug testing for those applying for public assistance – that includes welfare, job training, food stamps and public housing.

In Florida, which recently passed the most far-reaching of these laws, applicants for their Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF) program are required to take a drug test at their own expense — despite reports showing that TANF applicants use drugs at a lower rate than the rest of the population.

The Florida law is currently under challenge by the ACLU, but other states, including Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana and Oklahoma — are considering similar restrictions. And the Drug Free Families Act of 2011, introduced by Republican Senator David Vitter of Louisiana, would take the issue to the federal level by requiring all fifty states to adopt the drug-testing mandate. Proponents of the laws estimate they will save millions and ensure that tax dollars aren’t going to support drug habits. And if drug tests are required for many jobs, they argue, why not for government handouts?

But critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union, argue that the practice unfairly targets and stigmatizes the needy. No significant difference has been found in rates of drug use between welfare recipients and others; in fact, one study reports, most illegal drug users are employed full-time. With the ranks of the jobless growing and more and more Americans having to swallow their pride to put food on the table, this hurdle would seem to add further indignity to the already humbling experience of applying for assistance.


Would you submit to a drug test in order to join the welfare rolls? To get food stamps? To apply for unemployment? Would you consider it an unwarranted — and unconstitutional — invasion of privacy? As a taxpayer, how important is it to you that those seeking public assistance be certified drug-free?


Jason Williamson, staff attorney with the ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project

James Copland, director of the Center for Legal Policy at The Manhattan Institute