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Drug tests for benefits? It's complicated.

Anyone who receives government benefits should have to pass a drug test, many lawmakers believe, but federal courts have made such mandates tricky to impose.

Mississippi is the ninth and latest state to pass a law requiring some form of drug test or screening for public assistance recipients, and bills are pending in another 18.

Florida blanket-tested all benefits applicants for drugs until December, when a federal judge ruled the practice violated constitutional protections against unreasonable searches. The case was brought on behalf of Luis Lebron, a Navy veteran and student who was caring for his disabled mother and raising a young child as a single father. Lebron, who applied for state benefits, argued it was unfair to make him take a drug test because there was no reasonable suspicion he used drugs.

The Florida court agreed, reinforcing a similar Michigan Court of Appeals ruling in 2003.

Many lawmakers have wanted some form of drug testing for people receiving public assistance since federal welfare reform passed in 1996.

But because of the court rulings, most states have proceeded cautiously on the issue. Many have included screening policies in administrative rules rather than in statutes.

The nine states with laws take various approaches. Kansas screens applicants and recipients if their demeanor, police records, work records or prior drug screenings suggest they are possible drug abusers. If the drug test is positive, the person is required to complete treatment and job skill programs to be eligible for benefits. The law also makes those convicted of a drug felony after July 1, 2013, ineligible for cash assistance. First-time offenders are ineligible for five years; repeat offenders, forever.

In North Carolina, if there is reasonable suspicion of drug use, applicants or recipients must take, and pay for, a drug test. Those who test positive are denied benefits.

In the first year of Utah's program, the state spent $31,000 to administer 466 tests, with 12 positive results. Another 247 applicants, however, quit the process after they were told to expect a drug test, Representative Brad Wilson (R) told the Huffington Post, saving the state $369,000 in avoided benefits over the year, he said.

In Minnesota, Representative Rena Moran (DFL) is carrying a bill to modify a law that mandates random drug testing of welfare recipients who have been recently convicted of a drug felony. Moran told the law costs more time and money than it will save, concerns only a fraction of welfare recipients and encourages the general public to view welfare recipients through a "negative lens."

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Author:Finzel, Rochelle
Publication:State Legislatures
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2014
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